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Recess now mandatory for Boston public schools

Martin Desmarais | 12/18/2013, 11:25 a.m.
The city’s school department is getting serious about playing, this year requiring that all Boston schools, kindergarten through eighth grade, ...
Boston Public Schools has mandated that students in all grades from kindergarten to eighth have recess. The city is working with organizations, including Playworks, that help make recess time effective and organized. Above: Students at The Manning School in Jamaica Plain have been working with Playworks to improve their recess. Photos courtesy of Playworks

The city’s school department is getting serious about playing, this year requiring that all Boston schools, kindergarten through eighth grade, have recess.

The move is the result of efforts in recent years to buck what had become a trend where schools were cutting back on recess time for students.

“For the last four or five years now Boston Public Schools has been focused on improving the health and wellness of the students,” said BPS Health and Wellness Director Jill Carter. “We are really trying to connect the importance of health and learning — healthy students are better learners.”

Last summer, BPS released a system-wide health and wellness policy that covered everything from recess to physical education to in-class activity to food to staff education on health and wellness.

Carter calls the policy “one of the most substantial in the country” and says that BPS has a district wellness council for different sections of the city, and that every school now has its own wellness council. The job of these councils is to create specific health and wellness plans for each school.

According to Carter, the move to require recess is a critical step toward increasing the health and wellness of students, but BPS is also working on improving the physical education component of schools as well.

She said, as it stands, there are very few elementary schools that don’t have physical education.

“More than 90 percent have physical education,” she Carter said. “We do have a large number of elementary schools that don’t have gymnasiums, which makes it hard.”

The BPS recess requirement has no minimum time for recess, but there is a national education policy recommendation for physical activity that says students should get 60 minutes a day of physical activity, with at least 30 minutes in school. The target for physical education is 45 minutes, but the recommendation is for 80 minutes.

Carter points out that for most K-8 schools recess has always been part of the student experience, but having the BPS requirement now ensures the students will get the benefits of recess going forward — of which there are many.

“We absolutely know that it is important to the health of the kids long term to have them move, but it is also important for them to get out every school day and have them socialize,” Carter said. “We wanted to have quality recess, which really means kids being physically active and positively engaging with students and staff that are out there on the playground.”

For BPS, however, it is not as simple as just turning kids loose outside and letting them run around. Though a recess requirement is now in place, with recess often around 20 minutes, it is important to make sure the time is being used effectively by the students.

There are organizations that help schools run effective recess and train teachers to do so. One such organization is the Oakland, Calif.-based Playworks, which is a national nonprofit that supports learning and physical health by providing safe and efficient play environments in urban schools. Playworks has a Boston office and has already been working with BPS in 30 schools, through a previous grant.