Recess: How can we not?

IMG_2565LEJA, a local grassroots collaborative of teachers, parents, students and community allies is hard at work here in Lowell to advocate for consistency in recess allocation across all elementary and middle schools in Lowell. One would think, logically, that fair and equitable recess would be a given, but it is not.

Recess time is a building based decision. Anecdotal evidence shows that in this test-crazed, performance based era of education, it is much too easy for a building administrative team to shave recess minutes away in favor of test preparation. Having recently retired from nearly 10 years as a 3rd and 4th grade teacher, I have personally experienced the pressure put on students and educators at test grades, and the response has generally been to increase test preparation time. That increase comes at a cost; the cost has historically been to reallocate recess minutes to academics and test preparation. When I tell you that more targeted test preparation does not yield higher test scores, you don’t have to believe me, but you should.

I empathize when schools try to carve out more test prep through less recess time. However, that doesn’t make less recess the right thing to do. Research notwithstanding, there should be an expectation that children will a) have recess AND b) have a minimum of 30 minutes to re-set. There is much research that supports the need for recess (LEJA Recess Policy Guideline Proposal) including the impact on a child’s brain and the manner in which children learn and the impact on executive function and social-emotional growth of children.

Here’s a personal story that I hope illustrates that cramming more information in without sufficient break time is a recipe for ineffective teaching:

Some years ago, I attempted to learn Italian. I felt doing so would serve several purposes,  not the least of which would be an experience similar to what the children I taught as ESL learners might experience.  The class was 3 hours long without a break and conducted completely in Italian. By Hour 2, I was no longer able to retain any of the important language learning that the class was engaging in; the instructor’s pace did not slow and mainly what I was hearing was nonsensical droning. By the end of Hour 3 I had a terrific headache and couldn’t tell you what I had been learning. What I can vividly recall is the rush of fresh air as I stepped outside of the building. My brain needed a break not only to refresh and be ready to learn, but also so that synapses could form that would allow the connections to what I already know grow to include new information.

Now apply this experience to a student in an elementary school where from 8:30 to 11:30 (3 hours) you are learning in YOUR second language English. In college we used to call this type of “learning” cramming; it was useful to varying degrees of success for retaining facts just long enough for a major exam. In an elementary or middle school it is just plain cruel.

Children who reach their frustration level often show us that frustration without verbalizing it. Could the impact of a longer recess allowance reduce the number of out-of-compliance incidences in schools and classroom? Eliminating and reducing behavioral interruptions certainly would make time-on-task academics more productive for all the learners in the classroom, would it not?

I challenge our school committee and local policy makers to make increased recess and priority for our children. We need to treat our children like children. When you hear someone say we cannot schedule 30 minutes of recess in our school schedules, ask them HOW can we not?

Interested parents, students, educators, and community members are encouraged to attend a Policy Subcommittee meeting scheduled for April 23, 2018 starting at 6:00 pm in the Public Schools Central Office Fifth Floor Television Studio (notice attached).

When More (Time On Task) is Less (Effective)

2013fielddaybSome years ago, I enrolled in an Italian language class at Boston Language Institute. The class met for 3 hours – no break – several times each week. The instructor only spoke my “new” language, Italian, for the entirety of the three hours. We had some written materials, some listening resources, but mainly we were expected to immerse ourselves in Italian. If this sounds like what happens in a classroom, I would agree.

The first thing I learned from this experience was how utterly frustrating it is for a learner to function outside of his or her native language. But one of the larger experiences for me was the chance to experience what it must feel like for a student to attempt to sustain concentration and focus for extended stretches of time without a break.

By Hour 2 of my 3-hour class, I felt hopeless and defeated. I could no longer take another idea into my brain. I left the class with a dull and aching head and lots of questions as to what the goal of that instruction was. If this was my experience with sustained time-on-task learning as an adult, it wasn’t hard to imagine the same sense of frustration and defeat applying to the young learners in my classroom.

Regardless of whether or not the student is learning in a non-native language, as many of my former students were, extended periods of concentration does not necessarily yield higher academic achievement. Whether adult or child, the brain needs what the brain needs. And in learning new things, the brain needs some time off to make connections and absorb learning.

Since the inception of education reform, standardized curriculum, and high-stakes testing, educators have been pressured to prove that students are learning. The proof has, to date, been in the form of high stakes testing. Students, teachers, and schools who do not achieve arbitrary scores indicating that the prescribed curriculum has been mastered are called out. The trickle down response to test scores that are less than stellar has been toward reducing or eliminating children’s recess time.

Why? Because when test scores look bad, the first response is that the students need “more time” to learn the material. That time has to come from somewhere, so shaving minutes away from recess is the first response. To me, this sounds a lot like what I did as an unprepared college student studying for a final in Western Civilization: cramming.

Reducing or eliminating students’ active time does not mean better test results. The brain needs some time to process and absorb new learning. Kids who fidget less, focus more.

So what our kids need is similar to what my experience as a student proved for me: more recess. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s a statement from a recent Time Magazine article from October 23, 2017:

… a 2010 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found positive associations between recess and academic performance. “There is substantial evidence that physical activity can help improve academic achievement, including grades and standardized test scores,” the report said.

More time-on-task does not equate to more learning.


Another Reason for Increased Recess

2013fielddayaI wonder how many other adults have experienced this? After about 30 minutes of intense focus, there is a need to get up and move. For me, moving around when I am actively engaging my brain applies in nearly every circumstance, and I notice it most especially during some training or class when my brain is powered up and I’m trying hard to retain new information.

An article republished in the New York Times’ Well column made me think of how sitting and movement impact learning for all students regardless of age level. Written for runners and titled Can Running Make You Smarter, the article was originally published in July 2016. Here are some major take-aways from the article:

  • exercise fosters neurogenesis, or creation of neurons which cluster in the brain and increase ability for thinking and recall
  • physical stimulation is necessary for healthy brains
  • Cathepsin B protein, which helps muscles recover from exercise such as running, appears to be a factor in neurogenesis
  • in the study, more active subjects like runners had better and more improved tests scores for memory and thinking

So what’s the connection to students and learning? Here’s my take:

One of the first things schools jettison when time-on-task and test preparation becomes the focus, is recess. Recess is short-changed in many schools across the US even though research study after research study shows that children need recess and breaks from more academic pursuits in order to learn and think. Google the phrase “importance of recess” and page upon page of research pops up. And then, of course, you could just ask a teacher.

Recess is important. If this study is taken seriously, active play during recess appears to be even more important. Recently, in response to School Committee member Jackie Doherty’s motion of January 18, 2017, the Lowell Schools reported (click here for the report from the February 15 meeting packet) on the number of minutes allocated for recess at each Lowell Public Schools. The times ranged from zero minutes at Lowell High School and alternative school settings to 20 minutes at several elementary schools (25 for some Kindergarten classrooms).

The studies cited in Can Running Make You Smarter point once again to the importance of allowing students enough time to be active throughout the school day. Isn’t that a good reason to pay greater attention on finding some additional recess and play time in the school day?


School Committee: 15 February 2017

DSC_0442School Committee Meeting 15 February 2017

6 present, SC Descoteaux absent, Student representative: Onoste Omoyeni

Mr. Gignac requests taking Eagle Scout Michael Wojas’ report on textile recycling out of order.

Permissions to Enter

Usually the Permissions to Enter are not all that controversial.  Not tonight. The inclusion of a request for $4,921,313 for Aramark (1 year contract extension) generated about 45 minutes of discussion (my comments follow).

$4,981,113 in expenses ($4,921,313 allocated to Aramark in order to exercise a 1-year option for food service management in 2017-18), See detail in the Meeting Packet (downloadable PDF)

SC Gignac speaks to some issues he noticed during a recent visit to a satellite school (in food-service lingo, that would be a school where there is no kitchen. The lunches are prepared at another site (the Rogers) and transported.). SC Gignac noted the unappetizing appearance of the food, noting that the hot meal he observed was unidentifiable, and the marginally acceptable freshness. The director of the school shared he/she had to sort through a bin of fresh food (fruit, I believe) and remove rotten food. Mr. Gignac noted that the serving size (the school serves middle- and high-school age youth) was small, the presentation was unappetizing and the quality not acceptable. He notes that some schools with kitchen have experienced similar issues with food service in the past and expresses discomfort in awaarding a 1-year contract extension to Aramark.

The Aramark representative (name not given) cites some possible transportation issues that resulted in the food quality; however, the portion sizes provided are regulated by USDA and Aramark adheres to those portion regulations.

SC Gignac questions why satellite schools do not have more than one food choice. Aramark representative states there are some choices (hot meal, salad, and sandwich choice). Both SC Gignac and SC Hoey who were making a visit noted that on this visit a salad and “hot meal” were offered, but not the sandwich option which should have offered.  Both SC members note that school lunch is especially important to students in this setting as the in-school meal is possibly the only meal the students access. SC Gignac repeats that he would like to see an improvement prior to awarding an extension. SC Hoey notes that the quality of food at the alternative school (LeBlanc) was poor; the food quality was unacceptable and needs to be improved.  SC Gignac photographed the food he observed during his school visit and shared that image with other school committee members.

SC Doherty proposes a motion like to take the Aramark expenditure out of Permissions to Enter.

The unnamed Aramark representative mentions that the Lowell management group is working with Worcester’s operation to learn if there are improvements that can be initiated in Lowell.  Mayor Kennedy asks for explanation as to why a sandwich choice would have be missing from a day’s delivery (snow days, delivery issues, food choice not ordered).  If I understood this conversation correctly, there was an assertion that the school clerk at times makes lunch selection decisions (see my comments following). 

A second Aramark representative, Sharon Lagasse, visited Worcester’s satellite program and explains that the hope is to learn some techniques for efficiency that could be implemented in Lowell to improve satellite school food service.

SC Gignac asks for permission for LeBlanc Social Worker to speak to the concerns from the school’s perspective (older students need more food/larger portion, noticing the difference in portion sizes and options offered at LHS (where some of the students at this school originate) causes students to feel that they don’t deserve equitably food service quality, and sometimes lunch offering is a motivation for students to attend school).

Dr. Khelfaoui asserts that delaying the line item approval is a bad idea. He expresses disappointment that he is hearing about the meal issues for the first time at this school committee meeting. States that he will issue a directive about the procedure for lunch choice will be in place as of tomorrow and feels this is a communication issue, not a food quality issue.

SC Gendron asks if delaying this line item from tonight’s Permissions until next meeting would have any ill-effects. Mr. Frisch feels he can give a report of what corrections can be or have been be implemented by the next meeting and the line item can be re-entered.  Ms. Omoyeni speaks in favor of SC Doherty’s motion – not a punitive process but an investigative process. Roll call 6 yeas, 1 absent, approved.

Some years ago, there was an effort to provide students with more than one choice for lunch: a hot choice, a salad, and a sandwich. To manage food preparations, students at the elementary school where I taught (which did have a kitchen), made their lunch choice of lunch from the menu when they arrived in the morning. Those lunch counts were sent to the school clerk in the morning and forwarded to the kitchen staff.  In a satellite school, I’d imagine that a similar process takes place with the count of how many lunches of each category sent to the central kitchen by the school’s clerk. The policy at the time in the school in which I worked was that students who arrived tardy, were served the hot lunch choice by default. I wonder if the reference to a clerk “making lunch choices” might be confused with the clerk transmitting lunch counts and, if a student arrived tardy, the sandwich/salad choices were not available for practicality. 

School lunch, as some Committee Members noted, can sometimes be the only real meal a student eats during a day – that is a sad fact for some students living below the poverty line. Lunches that are unappealing and fresh foods that have gone beyond expiration should never be served no matter what. Pressing the pause button before engaging an extension of a food contract, even a one-year contract, not only sends the message that the School Committee cares about the quality of meals served to our students, but lets a very large corporate contractor know that the expectation for quality and healthy food service is a priority. As Ms. Omoyeni noted, this pause is not punitive, it is informative.

SC Martin does not participate in the CTI line item for permission to enter ($9,000). 5 yeas, 2 absent, approved.

All other permissions were approved (6 yeas, 1 absent, approved).


Three motions made, all by SC Doherty.

  • 6.I. [J Doherty]: Request the City Manager to provide the Committee with a report that details the City’s Maintenance of Effort Agreement for the last 3 years related to expenditures on the schools. (Typographical error; correction underlined).

Maintenance of Effort funding is sizeable and SC Doherty would like to examine how these services a provided to the schools. SC Hoey supports the motion and thinks the information should have been made available and transparent 25 years ago. Mayor Kennedy thinks it is worthwhile to go through the Maintenance of Effort jointly between Schools and City administrations. Passed.

The Maintenance of Effort amounts confuse me; I understand that some services are provided to the school department by the city (data processing, snow removal as examples). Making these expenditures transparent hopefully will improve understanding of costs and funding between the school department and the city. 

  • 6.II. [J Doherty]: Request the Superintendent provide the committee with a report of the transportation cost estimates of bussing students to a high school at Cawley over the next 12 years based on the number of students by neighborhood currently attending our schools.

SC Doherty would like this information as the Lowell High School project costs are calculated and how those costs might impact future budgeting.

  • 6.III. [J Doherty]: Request the Superintendent provide the committee with a report that looks at our K-12 student population by zip code to determine the number of students from each neighborhood.

In addition to this information, SC Gignac asks about the status for zoning of schools. Ms. Durkin notes that the location of a STEM middle school may impact such a report. SC Gendron asks about neighborhood zoning (moving from city-wide to neighborhood bus scenarios); Ms. Durkin can include this; however, the desegregation plan either has to be vacated or adhered to and this will have an impact on creating city-wide busing. The creation of City-wide schools was a result of the desegregation plan and ensure that equity is achieved. SC Martin notes the profound impact of vacating a desegregation order (she would not be opposed to such a move if it negates the primacy of every child attending a desegregated school in Lowell). Passed

Reports of the Superintendent

There were 8 items under Reports of the Superintendent.

  • 7.I Knowledge Bowl Schedule (see packet for dates and competition details)
  • 7.II Lowell High School Graduation Date & Speaker Announcement (see packet for information)
  • 7.III. Response To Robert Gignac’s Motion Of 01/18/17 Regarding Extracurricular Activities Throughout The District

SC Gignac requests the addition of how many student participate.

  • 7.IV. Response To Jacqueline Doherty’s Motion Of 01/18/17 Regarding The Time Allocated For Recess, Lunch, Physical Education, And Health

Registered speaker (Darcie Boyer) member of City-wide Parent Council and LEJA. Thanks the administration for report but notes the disparity of times across the schools. The CPC will examine this issue in more detail at their next meeting. Notes the importance of lunch/nourishment and free time to student well-being.

So many studies remind and inform us that in order to be ready for of learning and retain learning, students need a balance of “down time” – play and academic time. Students of all ages need to be active, to expend excess energy,  to socialize, to have a brain break. So with all this information on the importance of social and emotional health, why do schools continue to shave away recess time? Why are 6 and 7 year olds asked to sit still and work their brains without a break?

As the academic demands have increased on students, the response has generally been to increase “time on task” to the point that young learners are expected to sit still far beyond what they are developmentally capable of doing. Here’s a link from Harvard Medical School  as an example of why it is so important to give students down time, but don’t stop with just one opinion.

 Fifteen minutes of recess (which oftentimes includes getting ready to go outside and walking to the play area); 20 minutes (or less) to walk to the cafeteria, go through a lunch line, and eat – none of this is adequate for student well-being.

SC Doherty thanks administration for the information; notes 10-minute recess, 15-minute lunches do not include transport.  Makes a motion to refer report jointly to Curriculum and Student Services subcommittees to find some way to return to other aspects now that NCLB has been replaced by ESSA. SC Martin would like some additional information about the disparity of times between urban and suburban districts. Passed.

  • 7.V. Monthly Budget Report
  • 7.VI and 7.VII School Calendar and School Committee Meeting Dates for 2017-18
  • 7.VIII. Personnel Report

All superintendent’s reports 7.I through 7.V passed. 7.VI approved by roll call (6 yeas, 1 absent, approved). 7.VII (first reading – no action). 7.VIII approved.

New Business:

Educational Research request approved (6 yeas, 1 absent, approved)

(Taken out of order): Michael Wojas, a LHS 2016 graduate, gives an update on his Eagle Scout project, a textile recycling effort which was a collaboration with Lowell’s Solid Waste and Recycling as well as Bay State Textiles. Mr. Wojas who is enlisting in the Navy at the end of February, has designed a project to recycle effort. The monies raised through the recycling project results in some fundraising based on the amount of textiles collected and recycled. Currently, recycling boxes are sited at 15 Lowell schools, with the hope that middle schools will become involved in the near future. To date just under 2,000 pounds of textiles resulting in rebates of $7,731 which then go to support the schools. The Lincoln School, Morey School and Reilly School have been the top collectors of textiles. The bin upkeep is maintained by Bay State Textiles at no cost to the City.

Meeting detail and support documentation  can be found here.

Still Ignoring the Evidence

2013fielddayaPlay – real, unstructured brain break time – is as important to a child’s learning as academic time.

So why are school leaders and decision-makers so reluctant to let go and allow more recess? I cringe whenever I hear a school leader lecture that there isn’t enough time in a school day to increase play or unstructured time. Two reasons come to mind:

  • Quantity not quality – somehow the misguided idea that number of minutes and time-on-task are larger concerns than actual learning,
  • Test preparation is driving the construction of a school day.

Quantity not quality assumes that a student can maintain peak brain function and learn every second of a lesson. Ken Wesson tells us that students can attend to a lesson launch for approximately the same number of minutes as that child’s age.  Here is a link to an article I posted some time ago outlining this thought as it applies to a classroom.  If we are serious about optimizing student learning and making sure academic time is effective, we should know how the brain functions. What is the point of just yammering for 60 minutes when a 10 year old brain turned off 40 minutes ago?

I often hear – and truth be told, sometimes would say – that school days are packed. At one point when I taught 4th Grade, there were more minutes of instruction required within the day than there were minutes in the entire school day. And in this day and age, there is test preparation, which has to come from somewhere. Just exactly how much time gets expended to prepare students for those high-stakes tests like PARCC or Smarter Balance?

Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Professor of Education at Lesley University advocates for younger students to have more time for play and unstructured learning time as does K-12 writer Caralee Adams in the article “Recess Makes Kids Smarter“. Students are routinely asked not only to sit, but sit still for inordinate amounts of time when they developmentally are not ready to do so. Could misguided school policies requiring students to be on-task for long periods of time be driving the bulk of students perceived to have ADD or ADHD? Brain research makes me wonder.

For more about the importance of recess, free play, and unstructured time, the New York Times Parent Blog posted an article titled “Students Who Lose Recess Are The Ones Who Need It Most”. This article takes the importance of unstructured time a step further by advocating that taking away recess as a means of punishment for out of compliant behavior or for missing homework is counter-productive.  Losing recess may be a major factor in loss of self-control or executive function.

Our kids need to move, they need less chair time for their physical health and for their brains for function. Why do we continue to ignore brain researchers? To quote Ken Wesson, “If your job is to develop the mind, shouldn’t you know how the brain works?”

Educating the Whole Child

When you ask kids about their favorite subject in school, one of the most popular answers (after lunch) are “recess” and “gym”. Why is that?


Kids seem to inherently know they need some physical exercise. They know they feel better when they get to move around. Brain and body breaks aside, kids need to exercise.

So why is it that in the current educational culture, recess and gym are given the short straw? This school year, my students were allotted 10 minutes (including travel time) recess time and 50 minutes of gym instruction.  I’m sure they run (!) right home and go outdoors to play after school – not.

From my perspective, childhood obesity is not just some sad story on the evening news. It is real. And we need to start by allowing students more time to get out there and move.