Trim Recess? Some Schools Hold On To Child's Play Schools nationwide are under growing pressure to add instructional time, and recess is often one of the first things to get squeezed — particularly in low-income districts. But some schools are pushing back, embracing play time and physical activity as central to learning.
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Trim Recess? Some Schools Hold On To Child's Play

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Trim Recess? Some Schools Hold On To Child's Play

Trim Recess? Some Schools Hold On To Child's Play

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A growing body of research shows that play is fundamental to children's development. It promotes social interaction, exploration, creativity, yet schools across the country have been reducing the amount of time kids get for recess. Now, some schools are pushing back and they're getting help from a nonprofit organization that works with children in low income areas.

As NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, these schools are embracing play time as a key part of the learning process.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: A third grade boy with faux-hawk, a spiky hair gel created Mohawk pummels a plastic tetherball with focused intensity. It's recess at Ruby Bridges Elementary School in Alameda, a city on a small island next to Oakland, California.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Hey, you cheated...

WESTERVELT: Tetherball is just one of more than half a dozen recess play stations on the school's sprawling cement playground. There's also wall ball, basketball, capture the flag, sharks and minnows, a jungle gym, and several games of tag. Before the tag whistle blows, some second graders reach for the microphone.

HEATHER BENJAMIN: My name is Heather Benjamin and I'm popular.

RAHEL: Hi, my name I'm Rahel.

WESTERVELT: You're on the radio.

RAHEL: Yay, I'm on the radio.


WESTERVELT: The children get recess time help from Coach Kenny Wong, who's with the non-profit group Playworks, which works with low income area schools in California and across the U.S. Kenny's organizing a freewheeling, high-energy game of tag called Everyone's It.

KENNY WONG: And there's a lot of running involved, which during, like, stretches or running laps, kids will just hate running laps. But once the game starts, like, they'll just go non-stop.

WESTERVELT: It's a way to get them to run without telling them it's run time?

WONG: Right.

WESTERVELT: Ruby Bridges Elementary has embraced expanded recess, going beyond California's mandate of 400 minutes a month, as an important tool to help promote a healthy lifestyle and to help kids focus back in class, says Principal Jan Goodman.

JAN GOODMAN: It's totally important for me to educate the whole child and the body is part of the child. And that's what Playworks does: teaches you to work as a team and not always be concerned with winning. So send the whole Congress to Playworks, and maybe the budget wouldn't be stalled.

WESTERVELT: Goodman says the Playworks coach and program have also helped reduce playground conflicts through old-school games. When a dispute breaks out, Coach Kenny and the teachers first try to promote rock, paper scissors to resolve it.

WONG: What beats rock?


WONG: What beats rock?


WONG: What beats paper?


WESTERVELT: About 70 percent of Ruby Bridge's 600 students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Some come from Alameda Point, one of the five poorest neighborhoods in the Bay Area.

Fourth and fifth grade teacher Barry Savin says some of kids don't have a totally safe and secure place to play outside back in their neighborhoods. In addition, parents might not emphasize outdoor playtime after school. He says the Playworks program has been a huge boost.

BARRY SAVIN: It allows them to have a structured place in which they can go play games and have fun. A lot of the stress is on teamwork and cooperation, and hopefully those things will carry on.

Everybody line up...

WESTERVELT: Savin and other teachers work with the Playworks coach to encourage every child, including any physically challenged kids, to take part in some kind of semi-structured game at recess. And Coach Kenny has trained some three dozen kids across the school to serve as junior coaches to take a leadership role. They help organize, resolve conflicts and clean up.

I ask third grade Junior Coaches Isaaic(ph), Nada, Nicholas, and Mohammed about their jobs.

ISSAIC: It's a big responsibility.

WESTERVELT: Why is recess for you guys important?

NADA: Because we get to leave two minutes early from our class, and we...

NICHOLAS: That's not the reason because we get a break. We get to have a little bit of fun after finishing our work. And we have to finish our work so we can do doing junior coach...

MOHAMMED: We have assembly.

WESTERVELT: Alright. Thanks, guys. You got assembly,


WESTERVELT: got to go.

The school helps partially pay for the program, which costs about $30,000 a year with federal school money targeting low income areas. One educator who supports the program said the very fact that Playworks exists is a sad testament to how some schools and neighborhoods have de-emphasized play and recess, as kids ramp up screen time on tablets and smartphones.

WONG: Boys and girls, spread out and listen for the whistle.


WESTERVELT: Eric Westervelt, NPR News.

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