January 2011: On My Mind
Play with a Purpose
Why childreen need recess
By Cynthia J. Gentry
Illustration students at SCAD provided artwork for this story. Lauren Brown's submission, above, is our featured entry. Click here to see a gallery of the students' submissions.
Last year, Christopher Gomillion, a fifth-grade math teacher at Atlanta’s Bethune Elementary School in Vine City, took a gamble. Every day, for the first few minutes of each class, he gathered the children in a circle, flipped on some Lil Bow Wow tunes, and tossed a basketball around in unexpected patterns. His theory was that a little bit of movement and fun might help the kids burn off extra energy and pay more attention during class.
Even when annual standardized testing approached in April, Gomillion stuck to his agenda. And all but one of his students passed—a significant improvement over the previous year’s math students.
Across the nation, play is being squeezed out of our children’s pressure-cooker school days. In fact, recess itself has become increasingly rare. Some schools have it daily, some occasionally, and others don’t have it at all. In metro Atlanta, DeKalb County is the only system that unequivocally mandates recess.
Most of us adults took recess for granted as children. Play was sacrosanct. I went to Morris Brandon Elementary School in Buckhead, and we had recess every day. Some forty-five years later, the smell of honeysuckle still sends me back to that playing field. Not one to jump into sports, I would gather my friends in a quiet corner to write and direct plays. We were creating stories, writing dialogue, learning how to work together, and having great fun. It’s hardly a coincidence that I grew up to be a writer, artist, and organizer.
I didn’t become an advocate for play until long after my son was grown. My activism began accidentally, when a powerful summer storm blew into my Virginia-Highland neighborhood. The winds knocked a 100-year-old oak tree onto my next-door neighbors’ car as they were driving home from work. Lisa Cunard, three-year-old Max, and five-month-old Owen, all sitting in the backseat, were killed instantly. Brad, who was driving, was left unharmed. After the tragedy, our neighborhood and the entire city rallied behind Brad—showing support by building a memorial playground and garden. Running that effort changed my life. I witnessed the power of community and began to appreciate the power of play.
I also discovered KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit working to put a playground within walking distance of every child in the country. Inspired, I helped the City of Atlanta successfully apply for KaBOOM!’s Playful City USA designation. One of the requirements was establishing a task force, and so the Atlanta Taskforce on Play was born. Little did I know it would become my new career. As director of ATOP, I have worked on playscapes all over the city, and we have become increasingly concerned about recess disappearing from metro-area public schools.
Since the onset of No Child Left Behind in 2001, and with it the renewed emphasis on standardized testing, recess has often been one of the first things to go. Even earlier, in the late nineties, Atlanta nearly banned recess completely. In 1998, the then superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools told the New York Times, “We are intent on improving academic performance. You don’t do that by having kids hanging on the monkey bars.”
The public outcry was immediate. Eventually, Georgia’s State Board of Education required all systems to establish a policy for what it called “unstructured break time.” Currently, Atlanta, Cobb, and Gwinnett allow for, but do not require, a fifteen-minute break on days when there is no physical education class for kindergarten through grade five—and few breaks at all for grades six and up. DeKalb and Fulton mandate elementary school breaks, although Fulton principals may revoke them for disciplinary reasons. Each principal, and often each teacher, decides whether there will be recess that day. Free time may be used to do homework or just stay indoors. At ATOP, we have seen that unless the principal is a strong advocate of play, breaks often disappear altogether.
Parents must become advocates for their children. DeKalb’s recess policies are stronger because a loosely knit group of dedicated parents petitioned the county.
A daily break, however brief, is critical. It may be the only physical activity some children enjoy all day. American children spend almost eight hours per day with media of some kind. In the past twenty years, they have lost an average of eight hours of play per week, and barely over a third of them get the recommended daily sixty minutes of physical activity.
This sedentary lifestyle is taking its toll. Georgia has the second-highest rate of childhood obesity in the nation. Hypertension, diabetes, vitamin D deficiency, and poor conditioning are all on the rise. In fact, the Mayo Clinic estimates today’s generation will be the first to live fewer years than their parents.
Active play helps children fight obesity and ease the symptoms of diabetes, depression, and ADHD. Moreover, play helps children solve problems, learn to negotiate, develop self-esteem, and assess risk. It also helps them retain information more efficiently. Anyone who has taught boys can tell you that they become more attentive after recess. The fifteen minutes “lost” from class time isn’t lost at all.
A former banker now working with the Atlanta Development Authority was shocked to see his ten-year-old son, an honor-roll student, come home with plummeting grades. “I just don’t like going to school anymore,” the fourth grader confessed. “It makes me so bored. We just sit, read straight from the books, do worksheets, and we never go outside anymore. I get so tired.”
“Boys have to have physical activity,” the father told me. “They’re competitive by nature and need physical competition. School has robbed them of that.”
Moreover, for free time to be truly effective, children must be allowed to be spontaneous. When ATOP installed an Imagination Playground at Bethune, the kids loved the wild assortment of blue blocks. Several girls built a house; some boys made a slide. A creative first grader walked around with a rectangular block on his shoulder with a piece of noodle sticking out. Asked what he was doing, he rolled his eyes and replied, “I’m filming!”