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Recess Disparities In Seattle Schools

Ann Dornfeld

When you were in grade school, chances are you went out to recess three times a day. These days, kids in some Seattle public elementary schools still get three recesses, as much as an hour to play. Kids at other schools get just one recess, for 15 minutes. Children at Seattle's high–poverty schools tend to get the least recess. KUOW's Ann Dornfeld reports on this trend, and what it means for kids.


At Thornton Creek Elementary, kids head out to recess three times a day. They might play foursquare in the morning. Tetherball after lunch. And tag in the afternoon.

These three recesses add up to an hour of playtime each day. John Miner has been principal here for 14 years. Miner says kids at Thornton Creek need that hour of recess to practice the interpersonal skills they learn in the classroom. Like cooperation, collaboration, inclusion and problem solving.

Miner: "When you think about the skills you need as an adult to work alongside others, all of those skills I don't think came as a result of work on math, work on a writing project. They came in your interactions with other people."

Along with the skills kids build at recess, Sutapa Ray says playtime helps them learn in the classroom, too. She's a neuroscientist with the Bellevue children's software company Neuropath Learning.

Ray says exercise increases blood flow to the brain and builds new neurons. That helps the brain make connections. Ray says it's good for kids to switch from directed attention in the classroom to the indirect attention on the playground, where they can take in the sound of birds or the wind.

Ray: "When you go back to your classroom then your directed attention comes back into place and it gets the rest that it needs. Even a 10–minute recess, a 15–minute recess is good for the brain that way."

At Dunlap Elementary in Rainier Valley, this 15–minute recess is the only one many students will get all day. That's the schedule for third, fourth and fifth graders. Dunlap Principal Winifred Todd says 15 minutes is enough time for students to play. She says it's not conceivable to give Dunlap kids an hour of recess, like kids get at Thornton Creek.

Todd: "I don't see that fitting into the school day at this school — there are a lot of academic things that we need to do and to ensure to make that happen, I don't see a recess time for that much time — 45 minutes or an hour — working."

Another big difference between the schools is that at Thornton Creek, most of the students are white and middle–class. At Dunlap, nearly all of the students are black, Latino or Asian and from low–income families.

That corresponds to what KUOW found when we surveyed recess times across the Seattle school district. For instance, we looked at the 15 highest–poverty and lowest—poverty schools. Kids at the low–poverty schools average 16 minutes more recess than kids at the high–poverty schools. That amounts to about one whole recess more.

At John Muir Elementary, Principal Awnie Thompson says recess was cut back to 25 minutes several years ago to give kids more classroom time, and reduce arguments on the playground.

Thompson: "When we analyzed our discipline data, a lot of the conflicts were happening at the lineup, especially, when kids were coming in from recess. And when the kids come in that state of anxiety, anxiousness, it's hard for them to get settled for a while until they've had a big discussion about that."

More than half of the students at John Muir are black. Most of the students come from low–income families. Thompson says kids who behave well during the week get an extra recess on Friday. And teachers are allowed to take kids out for another recess if they want.

Dornfeld: "A lot of schools in the district give kids 45 minutes to an hour of recess every single day. Is that something that you see as realistic for this school?"

Thompson: "Um, so I would be interested to know who is giving 45 minutes to an hour of recess. Because I actually wasn't aware of that. And I would say that it's pretty unlikely. That's just a tremendous amount of time out of the day."

In fact, 17 Seattle elementary schools give students that much recess.

KUOW found that schools which offer the most recess, 45 minutes or more, have relatively few low–income students – an average of 20 percent. Compare that to an average of 71 percent low–income students at schools with the least recess: an average of half an hour or less each day.

Dr. Lenna Liu says that disparity is troubling because kids from low–income families often need recess the most. Liu is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist at Odessa Brown Children's Clinic. About 40 percent of the kids she sees are overweight or obese. She says that's typical for low–income families.

Liu: "I mean, these are the children who are at the highest risk for obesity because of their access to food and safe play spaces. So school is really the best place for them to have safe play and taking that away is detrimental."

Liu says she understands the pressures schools are under to raise student achievement, and that cutting back recess can seem like an easy fix.

Liu: "But from a health and childhood obesity standpoint, taking recess and physical activity away from children in lower–income schools is sort of putting fuel on the fire."

Liu says that while physical education (PE) class can add exercise time, PE has also been cut back at many schools. Kids at Dunlap, for instance, get only 30 minutes of PE twice a week. Besides, Liu says, PE is no substitute for the unstructured playtime that recess offers.

Liu: "I think unstructured play is, that's a child's work. And it comes to them innately. And it's joyful, it's great for their mind, it's great for their spirit, it's great for their body. I think children should get as much unstructured play as possible."

John Muir Elementary Principal Awnie Thompson says recess is a hot topic among parents these days. They want to know which schools will give their kids the most playtime.

Thompson:"But I think one thing that people perhaps don't realize is that they have an unrealistic expectation of what it looks like in a classroom. That if students are not at recess, that they are sitting at their desks. That just simply isn't the case."

Thompson says to make up for less recess, teachers keep the kids moving in the classroom. They'll do some work at desks, and other projects on the floor. And teachers will lead the younger students in a song and dance.

But teacher Judy Ginn says it's still recess that kids need.

Ginn: "Of course, teachers try to have activities within the classroom, within the learning, that involves movement. But that's not the same thing as going outside and running like mad for ten minutes!"

Ginn is a substitute teacher in Seattle Public Schools. She's worked at schools that have a lot of recess, and ones that have very little. And she says it's just harder to teach kids when they haven't gotten enough playtime.

Ginn: "Children like to run and move and that's what their bodies need because they're growing. When you restrict that, that energy has to come out some place so there's a lot of squirreliness in the classroom when they don't get to go and move around."

But how do you make recess a time for kids to play rather than get in fights? Thornton Creek Principal John Miner says kids need to be taught how to get along on the playground.

Miner: "I did work in another Seattle Public School with a very different culture as principal for two and a half years. The primary difference I noticed was that not teaching those skills proactively in the classroom made recess very problematic."

Miner says in order for kids to learn how to get along on the playground, they need more playground time, not less.

But the trend across the state is to cut back on recess. Last December the state published a survey of recess policies at schools throughout Washington. The survey found that 30 percent had reduced recess time over the past few years.

I'm Ann Dornfeld, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2010, KUOW