Boost from 15 to 45-60 minutes will allow unstructured play
Originally published May 28 in the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
By Cynthia Howell
Twenty-four elementary schools in districts as large as Pulaski County Special, Conway and Fort Smith and as small as Fouke in Miller County will participate in an extended-recess pilot program for the 2018-19 school year.
For children in the Pulaski County Special School District’s Daisy Bates and Pine Forest elementaries, participation in the pilot program means free play time will go from the current 15 minutes after lunch to 60 minutes a day for kindergarten through fourth grades and 45 minutes for fifth-graders.
Janice Warren, the district’s interim superintendent, said the participation in the pilot project will give kids “time to run and be kids.”
“In a regular school day we don’t have that time anymore to give them,” Warren said. “We wanted to be part of the pilot to show that it makes a difference when they get to run out and be kids and then come in.”
The one-year pilot program for selected schools — at least two from every education service cooperative region and Pulaski County — was authorized by Act 1062 of 2017.
The law specifies the periods each day of “unstructured and undirected play,” and the play time must be separate from required physical education each week. The law also includes sixth-graders at the participating schools.
To aid the schools, the Arkansas Department of Education is sponsoring active-recess training next month in North Little Rock for the staffs in the participating schools, Kimberly Friedman, a spokesman for the department, said last week.
“The training highlights a number of evidence-based strategies focused on maximizing physical activity during recess, practicing and improving essential social skills, and enhancing curiosity and learning,” she said.
Blair Dean, a professor in the Department of Health, Physical Education and Sport Sciences at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, will lead the training for the project that she hopes will begin to address what she sees as the “alarming” obesity and physical activity rates among the state’s children.
“I believe that being physically active has the power to change lives,” Dean said.
“I’ve done extensive research on the brain and physical activity connection,” she said. “Every single recess study found one or more positive associations between recess and cognitive skills, attitudes and academic behavior. None of the studies found negative associations.”
While an extended recess of free play in and of itself won’t make children smarter, “it will put the brain in the optimal state of readiness to learn,” she said.
The physical activity increases the supply of oxygen to the brain and increases the growth of new neurons, she said. The end result: “A direct uptick in mental sharpness.”
The law requires that participating schools submit regular reports to the Arkansas Department of Education about the pilot.
The quarterly reports will be submitted by each classroom teacher, as well as by at least one building administrator and by other school staff members who supervise children at recess.
The Education Department has defined unstructured physical activity as “active time in which students are not required to engage in a specific activity,” although games and physical activity equipment are typically provided. Resources such as Go Noodle and Yoga for Kids are not to be used.
“Even though children are un-directed in their choice of activity, an adult is needed to supervise,” the state agency guidelines for the pilot project state.
The guidelines also make it clear that the extended recess time must be within the school day, not before or after. And, all grades at a pilot-program school must participate.
Warren in Pulaski County Special said school day schedules to accommodate the extended recess time have not yet been finalized for next year.
She said she envisions the participating schools receiving some leeway or waivers on instruction requirements, so that math and science instruction can be blended together, or language arts and reading instruction can be blended to free up time for the recess.
Dean predicted that the benefits of the pilot program will go beyond the individual child.
“I’m elated to see a recess revival going on in Arkansas,” she said. “Recess contributes to higher levels of school connectedness, which creates a positive school climate, including attendance, engagement, and academic achievement.”