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Thu Oct 8, 2015, 04:05 AM

Recess in Seattle: How We Won the Right to Play


It was May of 2014. I had just picked up my son from his wonderful play-based preschool, and, as we headed home, I turned on the radio. Usually, my son would demand that I “turn off the boring news” and put on his favorite break beats for the ride home—and usually he’d get his way. But this time, a story in a series called “No Time for Play” by public radio education reporter Anne Dornfeld grabbed my son’s attention when he heard her start talking about a study showing recess times in Seattle Public Schools were shrinking.

We learned that when the study began four years earlier, only one Seattle school reported an average recess time of 20 minutes or less per day. During the 2013-2014 school year, some 11 schools offered such paltry recess (and it’s only gotten worse since then). Anne’s story pointed out that the schools with the least amount of recess had high concentrations of students of color and low-income students.

Because my son’s preschool educated me about the incredible value of play in childhood development, this news distressed me in the same way a kid feels when he is held in from recess on a sunny day. Also, with my son entering kindergarten in the Seattle Public Schools the next fall, I knew I had to do something about it.

I began by doing a survey of the research on the benefits of recess for childhood development, and it was definitive. Among many benefits, free play is critical to children developing skills I believe are the most important for young children to develop: cooperating, sharing, and solving problems.

Then I looked at trends in recess time around the country. What I discovered was similar to the experience of watching a kid pull back an Elmo Band-aid to reveal a festering skinned knee from falling on the asphalt. Seattle was following a national trend in reducing recess time in primary grades as school districts bend to federal mandates to raise test scores.

I had been organizing for some time against destructive high-stakes standardized testing and the policies of the No Child Left Behind act, Race to the Top, and the Common Core standards that have been used to promote test-and-punish schooling. But my activism took on new meaning when I discovered that, according to the American Association for the Child's Right to Play, as many as40 percent of school districts in the United States have reduced recess since the implementation of No Child Left Behind act.

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