Austin elementary students to get 30 minutes of free play time daily

Starting this fall, all elementary school children in the Austin school district will get 30 minutes of unstructured play time at recess each day under a plan supported by district administrators.

Previously, unstructured play time has not been required, and in some schools — particularly those that struggled to meet state academic requirements — the children received only 20 minutes of structured play. The 30 minutes of free play will be in addition to any structured play time, and the free play recess can no longer be withheld as punishment for discipline issues or for test preparation, remediation or testing.

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The structured time, which is teacher-organized and could mean walking or running laps or games, has been used to supplement physical education, which is not offered every day to Austin students.

Other districts in Central Texas have also turned recess into something that looks more like PE, as teachers and principals try to meet a state requirement for 135 minutes of physical education per week.

But free play during recess has made a comeback in several districts as well as Austin, prompted in part by research that shows it can help academic performance.

The Round Rock district offers 20 minutes of unstructured recess but allows campuses to decide how to use that time, and it can be cut or altered for campus events, early release days and discipline. The Dripping Springs district offers 20 minutes of free play that does not count toward PE.

In Hutto, students get 30 minutes of free play time each day in addition to the physical education requirement, and that time is not sacrificed for test preparation or taken away, said Todd Robison, district spokesman. “We value the health and well-being of our students and appreciate the benefits of recess as posited by recent research,” he said.

The benefits of free play include development of social skills and brain function.

“The data on recess is in, and long-term academic excellence such as in Finland and other recess-rich areas support the neuroscience of play as fostering motivation, attention and long-term learning,” said Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist who founded the nonprofit National Institute for Play.

According to Brown, it is self-defeating and “makes no sense at all” to cut play time in school for the sake of academic gains.

Teachers in recent years also have pushed for free play as screen time for children has replaced outdoor play time that was common decades ago, and as an increasing emphasis on testing and funding cuts have reduced recess time.

The change for the Austin district, which is likely to go into effect by the middle of the fall semester, was pushed by the leadership of Education Austin, the district’s largest teacher group, and the Student Health Advisory Committee. In response, the district put together an innovation design committee, which included members from both groups, as well as principals, teachers and central office administrators, which made the recommendation to the administration.

READ: Studies point to impacts of cutting children’s play time

“Among other things, we see this as an equity issue,” said Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin. “It’s also a best practice. It’s best for our kids, whether they sit under an oak tree or run around.”

The administration will recommend the change to the school board, which is expected to approve it.

“I’m ecstatic,” said school board President Kendall Pace, who said because it was such a collaborative effort, she thinks her fellow trustees will support it, too. “It’s necessary. There are a number of studies that say it’s important to brain development. Short bursts of unstructured play makes them more focused.”

If it is approved, each campus can decide how it wants to put the new play time in place, including which part of the day.

“We don’t want it to be a mandate,” Pace said. “It’s what works best for the campus and their schedule.”

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