Fine Print: School Recess Mandate

John Mooney | February 25, 2013 | Education
For today's overstressed, overweight kids, kickball and other games could be just what they need

What it is: State Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) is the prime sponsor of a bill (S-1501) that requires all K-5 public elementary schools to provide at least 20 minutes of recess every day. The Senate Education Committee unanimously passed the measure last week and sent it on its way to the full Senate.

What it means: The Trenton Democrat has championed this bill for three years, first filing it in late 2009. She has said that the main aim is to combat childhood obesity and diabetes, and the perceived lack of physical activity in general for young children, especially in urban areas. If it ever passes, New Jersey would join only three states that have a mandate for recess; five others encourage it. The Senate committee endorsement is the proposal’s furthest progress yet.

Recess is good for you: The extent to which schools have abandoned recess is unclear, with one national study finding that 70 percent say they offer at least 20 minutes a day. But clearly there is a worry that schools in general are providing less downtime in the face of heightened pressure over academic achievement, not to mention spending, and recess is often the first to go.

Growing support: A number of studies have come out of late describing the benefits of daily activity for children, whenever they can get it, including recess. Among the most recent from the American Academy of Pediatrics in December, which explicitly cited the benefits of recess. Not only does it help meet daily benchmarks for at least 60 minutes of physical activity, the association said, but also there are the social and psychological benefits in giving students a break from class.

Kickball’s contribution: Even one of the state Senate’s most conservative legislators, state Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Warren), is backing this one, saying that one of his fondest memories of school was playing kickball during recess. “It was awesome,” he said with great enthusiasm at the committee’s vote Thursday.

Scheduling and other details: The problem with making recess a mandate is that it can be seen as just another hoop for schools to jump through, at a time when the Christies administration — among others — is pushing to reduce red tape. And there are some tricky details: what if it’s cold outside or scheduling on a particular day can’t accommodate the break. A larger concern is not mixing recess in with physical education, which must meet for 150 minutes a week by mandate. There’s cause for concern: Mandated recess in some states has slowly replaced phys-ed.

Recess no matter what: Turner said she will addresses some of these concerns in amendments. But she is standing fast on her main issue, maintaining that recess be provided without restriction. This weekend she also said, “It should never be withheld as punishment; it’s just as essential as anything else in school, and you wouldn’t see that with any other class.”

The prospects and Michelle Obama: Turner’s bill has yet to draw any cosponsors, and there is no companion bill in the Assembly as yet. But the senator said it’s early, and she is feeling better about her measure’s prospects than ever before. It also helps that Michelle Obama has created around childhood fitness. “The first lady has helped a great deal in raising consciousness about this,” Turner said.