Originally published March 24, 2019 in the Rome News-Tribune.

By Andy Miller, Georgia Health News

Kids love school recess: Kicking a soccer ball, clambering up a jungle gym, chasing each other on a playground.

And such unstructured play is not just fun, researchers say. Recess can help improve academic performance and reduce fidgety behavior and negative conduct in the classroom, health experts say.

Thirty minutes of recess may become the norm soon at elementary schools across Georgia.

House Bill 83 would make each elementary school establish daily recess for students in kindergarten through Grade 5. The bill “encourages’’ schools to make recess 30 minutes long.

The recess proposal, though, has stalled in the General Assembly in previous years.

Rep. Demetrius Douglas, a former Georgia Bulldog linebacker and currently a Henry County high school football coach, is lead sponsor of the bill. He has pushed the recess idea for three years now, but says he’s confident that this year the proposal will pass.

Douglas, a Stockbridge Democrat, points to the high child obesity rate in the state. One-third of Georgia children ages 10-17 were overweight or obese in 2017.

“It’s a health initiative first,’’ Douglas says. “It’s about our future. These kids will be running our state.’’

The Senate Education and Youth Committee heard testimony on the recess bill Monday.

“This bill was never about me,’’ Douglas told them. “It’s about the kids.’’

The panel also heard from Atlanta fifth-graders Pierce Mower and Ephraim Lane, who spoke in favor of such unstructured play periods. They attend Burgess Peterson Academy, and talked about teachers taking away recess as a punishment.

They will be in middle school next year. Recess “should be in middle school, too,’’ Pierce said.

Recess has been around since the era of inkwells and one-room schoolhouses. But years ago, an increased emphasis on standardized testing led many school districts in the United States to cut into recess in favor of more instruction in class. Now that trend has reversed, with states such as Florida and Rhode Island requiring recess.

Not just a hole in the school day

The idea that a break for physical activity wastes valuable academic time has given way to an understanding that activities like recess have their own value. The CDC reported in 2010 an association between school-based physical activity, including physical education, and academic performance among school-aged youth.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says recess “serves as a necessary break from the rigors of concentrated, academic challenges in the classroom. But equally important is the fact that safe and well-supervised recess offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits that may not be fully appreciated when a decision is made to diminish it.’’

Fewer than 1 in 3 American children get enough exercise every week. If they don’t become more active, more than 8 million will be obese by their 18th birthday — and their health care and lost productivity as adults could cost the country close to $3 trillion, according to a study in the journal Health Affairs.

Douglas says that most Montessori and private schools in Georgia, along with Fayette County schools, now require recess.

The bill does not prescribe how a school should establish recess. “I’m not trying to micromanage this,’’ Douglas says. “I’m not trying to tell how to do it.’’

Voices for Georgia’s Children, an advocacy group, says children at all grade levels in the state should be guaranteed a minimum of three hours per week of physical education, distinct from health class, throughout the school year.

The group calls for a minimum of 30 minutes of recess per day for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. It adds that students should not be blocked from participating in recess and physical education as a method of punishment.

Sen. John Wilkinson (R-Toccoa), a committee member who has worked in education, said at Monday’s hearing, “I know we can figure out a way to have 30 minutes of recess. A lot of this is common sense — and I think that may be one reason it’s had so much trouble . This bill is for the children.’’

The Senate panel also heard from a former Decatur math teacher, Lisa Coronado, who said she has been working on this issue for more than a decade. Coronado said she has taught students who did not know what recess was.

“Please think of the students,’’ she told the committee. “Give teeth, so every single day, they get a recess break.’’

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    A Georgia legislator authors a bill to make recess mandatory at the state's elementary schools.
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