Students at a majority of the schools in Austin’s low-income neighborhoods get little to no recess time, while the children at more than 80 percent of the district’s more affluent elementary campuses get unstructured play time daily.
While plans were announced this summer to offer students at all schools at least 30 minutes of free play time by this fall, it could be months – and maybe not until next year — before some campuses make the change.
District administrators this week presented to the school board a policy that guarantees elementary students through grade 5 will get a minimum of 20 minutes of free play each day and mandates that recess no longer can be withheld as punishment for discipline issues. Trustees will vote on the issue later this month.
An emphasis on testing in the school system and funding cuts have reduced recess time over the years. Unstructured play hasn’t been required in Austin district schools for some time. In some schools, particularly those that struggle to meet state academic standards, students only get structured play time – running laps or a teacher-organized activity – to help meet the state-required 135 minutes of physical education per week.
But in August, administrators, the district’s health advisory committee and leaders of Education Austin, the largest teacher labor group, agreed to give 30 minutes of free play to all elementary students. Education Austin quickly posted on social media what they considered a success, and teachers lauded the proposal. But the terms weren’t part of the annual consultation agreement between the labor group and the district, and district leaders hadn’t yet talked to principals about the change.
While some campuses immediately started rolling it out, other principals expressed concerns over how the free play time will fit into their school day. School schedules were created months ago, and, particularly for large campuses (some with 1,000 students), it is difficult to navigate a rotation schedule among the time needed for lunch and classes such as art, music and PE.
The elementary schools this year also had to accommodate 15 additional minutes set aside for structured independent reading as part of the district’s efforts to boost literacy.
Superintendent Paul Cruz said he doesn’t want free play time to have “an unintended consequence where particular subjects are not taught anymore. There’s a real possibility about that happening.” Cruz this week proposed to roll out a “soft launch” in January, wanting to take “a little more thoughtful approach and engage principals and teachers on the implementation.”
“What I don’t want is for something that can be very powerful and valuable to be kicked back because people just see it as more time, and people not understanding why this is coming,” Cruz said. “What I don’t want to lose in here is why were the reasons for this: the benefits of physical activity and how it helps the mind function in a better way.”
Growing research points to the benefits of recess, including improved academic performance, increased memory and more focused attention.
“This, to me, is a real equity issue to see how students are enjoying physical activity at some schools in some parts of Austin, and at other schools in other parts of Austin, including at the school at which I mentor, students are in the cafeteria for the whole, however many minutes they’re at lunch,” said Trustee Jayme Mathias.
Mathias said he would like the district to find a way to give recess to students at all grade levels, while Trustee Gina Hinojosa said she wants to bring the time back up to 30 minutes.
“We were disappointed in some of the proposals at Monday’s meeting but are confident we will be able to work with the district to do what’s right by kids and they get daily unstructured play this year, not later,” said Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin. “We believe this can’t wait.”