Rise Up for Recess

It was the Friday before school started, and 10-year-old Nicklaus Barbery was understandably nervous. The soon-to-be fifth-grader took forever selecting his outfit: knee-length Phat Farm jeans, a light-blue T-shirt picturing a Cadillac Escalade, and his new Phat Farm sneakers with blue and white laces. His mother, Nancy, sighed when she...
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It was the Friday before school started, and 10-year-old Nicklaus Barbery was understandably nervous. The soon-to-be fifth-grader took forever selecting his outfit: knee-length Phat Farm jeans, a light-blue T-shirt picturing a Cadillac Escalade, and his new Phat Farm sneakers with blue and white laces. His mother, Nancy, sighed when she saw what he was wearing but decided, for the sake of peace, to let it go.

Later that morning, Nicklaus, a blond, dimpled little hipster with a New York Yankees stud earring, strode into his new classroom at Embassy Creek Elementary School in Cooper City with Nancy and his father, Jorge, in tow. The trio headed for the teacher's desk, where a small group of parents and children had already gathered. While others took turns shouting questions about homework and FCAT preparation, Nicklaus waited patiently for his turn to speak. The little boy had but one query: Do you give recess?

The teacher, a sweet slim woman with kind eyes and long, whip-like black hair, smiled.

"Well, that depends," Nancy Barbery remembers the educator saying. "Do you do your homework?"

The parents laughed, but Nicklaus did not.

You see, to him, recess is no laughing matter.

Last year, Nicklaus says, he could count on two hands the number of times he was freed for recess. His teacher would take it away if his classmates were too noisy, if their homework wasn't signed, or if they had too much work to do.

When Nancy Barbery approached the principal, Robert Becker, about this, he gave her the runaround. "Generally, yes I think recess is a good idea," he said. "But I'd rather have an overweight kid who can read than a fit-and-trim kid who can't."

All across America, as in Broward County, recess has been given the old heave-ho. About 40 percent of U.S. schools have nixed it, according to the International Play Association (IPA), a group that advocates more recreation time for youngsters. Instead, some little ones are cooped up. Others are angry. Still others are bouncing off the walls, making their parents, teachers, and other assorted authority figures crazy.

Thousands of kids like Nicklaus, parents, and psychologists have but one message for those who would shackle students to their desks: Let Our Elementary Schoolers Go!

Recess has long been a staple of American education. Back in Colonial times, students were liberated from classroom bondage for an average of two hours daily, says Rhonda Clements, IPA president and a professor of education at Hofstra University. During the 1950s, kids often had three recesses a day. And in the 1960s, youngsters were, on average, granted two breaks totaling 30 minutes to an hour. But around 1983, after the landmark study "A Nation at Risk" documented how American schools were falling behind those of other nations, administrators began cracking down.

It got so bad that back in 2000, angry parents forced two states, Virginia and Michigan, to make recess compulsory. "Who would have thought you'd have to make playing mandatory?" asks Rebecca Lamphere, who spearheaded the movement in Virginia.

In Florida, the pressure to cage youth at school can be traced at least to the 1970s, when a Tampa-area school district outlawed recess, citing time constraints. The situation was worsened by Gov. Jeb Bush, who instituted Florida's Comprehensive Assessment Test in 1998. Schools were judged by their test scores. There just wasn't enough time for running free, hanging from the monkey bars, jumping rope, and shooting hoops.

These days, the state doesn't track how many schools offer recess. Deborah Higgins, a press secretary for the Florida Department of Education, wouldn't say much about the issue. "Recess is a district decision," she comments blandly.

But everyone is not just passively accepting the prohibition of free time.

This past January, Tampa resident Lori Laughrey marched into her district's School Board meeting demanding recess time for her children. She had recently moved to Florida and was shocked to learn that the most hallowed of school institutions was not offered in her daughter's classroom. Her efforts were greeted mainly with heckles and laughter. But the movement attracted statewide attention.

In Broward, Nancy Barbery picked up the torch. In March, she joined the county's health commission, a state-supported volunteer group that advises the School Board, and helped draw up a platform for mandatory recess. When it was presented at a meeting, Nancy contends, the initiative was greeted with only polite smiles and nods. When she tried to contact the board members to follow up, she says no one would return her calls.

Enter Marvin Silverman, a school psychologist living in Cooper City who has spoken about kids' issues around the country and on the CBS Morning News. He recently declared his intention to run for the Broward County School Board next August. Restoring recess is a major part of his platform. "There's a chemical need for recess," he explains. "Even in psychiatric hospitals, they give their patients some sort of physical education. It helps with mood and movement."

Groups from several counties have banded together to win back recess. In November, the advocates will get the chance to present their findings at the annual Florida PTA convention. They hope that the organization will adopt their issue and present it to the Department of Education. The Florida Dairy Council, whose members provide those tiny cartons of milk, recently declared its support for the initiative. Now the group is looking for help from the true child experts: Walt Disney.

It's perfect, Barbery thinks. "They've got a show on their [ABC Kids] network called Recess," Barbery explains, "and its motto is 'recess twice a day when once a day is not enough.' I think that alone speaks volumes."

Twice a day! That sounds pretty good to the kids at Limestone Creek Elementary School in Jupiter. In the rare instances when students in the upper grades get recess, they can't go out to the playground to play. That's because the school does not have one for them. The equipment was removed last summer for safety reasons, and a new one hasn't opened. During the few minutes when the children are freed, they sometimes play on a track of cinder block they call the "bus loop."

Bradley Hoffman, a fourth-grader at the school, sighs as he remembers "way back in first grade" when he was let out for recess every day. "Those were the good old days," he says.

Bradley, a pale reed-thin boy with a shock of blond hair, cannot stay still for a second. Sitting in his chair, he switches positions more often than President Bush. He drums his fingernails on the table and taps his feet against the chair legs. He clucks his tongue and speaks fast.

"Recess and gym are my two favorite subjects," he says. "Without them, I would die."

Bradley's mom, Kathy, says that the boy and his older brother, Brian, come home moody and depressed when they don't get recess. She can tell right away by the looks on their faces whether they have been given the break that day. When Kathy complained to the boys' teachers about the lack of recess, they responded favorably and allowed a little more playtime. But Bradley still doesn't know whether there will be recess each day.

He knows he's lucky, though, to be granted it at all.

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