By Stephanie Jones
While Georgia is reeling over Gov. Brian Kemp’s unexpected veto of House Bill 83 which would expect that schools provide recess to students and not use it as a punishment, researchers and educators around the country and world are having an entirely different conversation. That conversation is built on the assumption that young people have free and unstructured playtime.
The debate among scholars is about what free-and-unstructured playtime looks like and what roles adults play in those spaces, not about whether people under 18 have a right to play.
This is not some radical, far-fetched assumption about the basic human rights of children. In fact, it is even built in to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in Article 31:
States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.
States Parties shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity.
Most children spend 7-9 hours at school each weekday and 8-12 hours sleeping (ideally) each night, leaving them with about 3-7 hours each weekday outside these two major activities. During the hours that are left, they are also eating, bathing, and traveling to and from school and other places.
Additionally, schools place mandates on young people’s out-of-school-time as well including homework, special projects, online requirements, evening events, and so on.
You can see how quickly playtime can be eroded if it isn’t systemically built in to the school day.
Some children have additional constraints on their opportunities for playtime: structured activities such as sports, dance, music, and other youth organizations, for example, can take place anywhere from one to five days or more a week. Both paid and unpaid work also restricts leisure and playtime. Some young people work for family businesses, take care of housework and younger (or older) family members, operate their own small businesses (think mowing lawns, babysitting, dog-walking, etc.), or get hired by a business in the community.
However, schools still largely monopolize the time of young people and while they have recognized some of the consequences of restricted playtime, most have yet to change their ways.
For example, Georgia ranks relatively high for “childhood obesity” and recently mandated that physical educators in the state collect and report body-related data on individual children including their BMI (Body Mass Index). Some counties have even gone as far as reporting BMI on student report cards and assigning required “homework” to students that includes being outside and active for a certain number of minutes.
At the same time that concerns are raised about these childhood “problems,” some students never see the outside of their elementary, middle, or high school building during school hours. This might be by design, by default, or by punishment, but none of these are acceptable.
Problems in childhood mental and physical health are likely some of the consequences of the sedentary and often stressful conditions in the institutions where they spend at least one-third of their time each weekday. Simply collecting and reporting data on those consequences and expecting individual families to be responsible for the solutions rather than addressing systemic conditions within schools is untenable and unethical.
It might not be a state law, but research is clear about the necessity of unstructured play and how it benefits physical, psychological, social, and academic well-being. Even if such benefits weren’t clearly documented, it is simply unethical to withhold play, leisure, and recreation from young people. Schools, as the institutions having the most control over young people’s bodies each day, have an ethical responsibility to organize their time and space in a way that promotes the overall wellness of our young people including unstructured play.