Schools pushing for more class time with students to meet rigorous assessment standards have cut back on recess and physical education. But health advocates and parents argue decreasing such activity hurts kids’ learning and doesn’t help solve Georgia’s childhood obesity problem.
The trend toward less physical activity is under scrutiny as students head back to school and parents find their children often have a tough time adjusting to sitting at desks much of the day after unstructured summer days of play.
“It’s frustrating for the highly active kids to be told to sit still all day because they end up using all their energy trying not to move instead of learning,” said Beth Wieder, whose 12-year-old son attends a DeKalb County middle school. “It is so counter-productive … When my younger son started middle school last year, he kept telling me he missed elementary school, and when I asked him what he specifically missed, he wistfully said, ‘Recess.’ ”
Before the 2001 implementation of the No Child Left Behind federal education law — which emphasized math, reading and other core subjects — elementary school recess times varied across the country, from an hour to 90 minutes a day in the 1980s into the 1990s, according to child health advocates. Now, elementary schools in Georgia and other states typically offer between 10 and 30 minutes, though some have no recess at all.
The state doesn’t require schools to have recess, and the vast majority of high schools and middle schools don’t. Some elementary schools that have recess often withhold the playtime as punishment for not meeting academic standards – a practice frowned upon by health officials and child advocates.
As for PE, Georgia lawmakers passed legislation in 2000 that cut back requirements, including the 225 minutes of PE a week that middle schoolers used to get. Now, middle schools must offer PE if students want it, but there is no requirement for the students to take any PE.
For grades K-5, the state requires 90 hours of health and PE, any combination of the two, a year; for high school, students must take one semester of personal fitness.
Georgia’s PE requirements do not meet those set by the Society of Health and Physical Educators, or SHAPE America, which releases annual report cards rating the health of the nation’s students.
State education officials declined to say if they think Georgia students are getting enough physical activity at school, but “there are a lot of bodies of research that really do support it’s important for kids to be physically active, and it’s important for kids to be physically educated,” said Therese McGuire, health and physical education program specialist at the Georgia DOE.
To encourage more physical activity in classrooms and address the childhood obesity problem in Georgia – where nearly one in three children are obese – state educators launched a program last year aimed at getting kids active for at least 30 minutes each day at school, in addition to PE times. The program is for elementary schools and is voluntary, with 200 schools participating, according to state department of education officials.
Recess, in particular, is crucial for children’s cognitive, physical and academic development, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics and other groups.
Peter Gray, research professor of psychology at Boston College, who’s written extensively about play and its impact on children’s learning, said he sees a connection between the rise of childhood mental disorders — such as anxiety, depression and ADHD — and the decline in recess and playtime.
“Increasingly children are in structured activities and are not allowed to play freely outdoors,” Gray said. “What we really need to do is recognize the value of children’s free play … where they’re in control. Because that’s where they’re learning a lot of very important lessons that can’t really be taught in the classroom. How to get along with other people. How to solve their own problems.”
Carly Braxton, senior manager of advocacy for SHAPE America, said since No Child Left Behind the group has “seen state-level PE mandates suffer.
“Studies show more seat time does not equal higher test scores,” she said. “There’s so much research that shows if kids are healthy and physically active, not only do they have higher test scores, but lower rates of absenteeism, lower rates of disciplinary referrals, better behavior, concentration … all kinds of benefits. It’s unfortunate the focus has been so strongly on instructional time and test scores. And really, that well-rounded, whole child education isn’t the focus.”
Braxton notes there are no federal requirements for PE or recess, with decisions about both made at the local level. Forty percent of principals nationwide say they’ve cut recess since No Child Left Behind because of testing mandates, she said. Close to 20 percent of school districts nationwide require daily recess.
Metro Atlanta school districts report recess times for elementary students between 10 and 20 minutes, less than in the years before No Child Left Behind. Districts could not say in detail how much recess time has changed.
In Cobb County, the state’s second-largest school district, most elementary schools typically have a 15-20 minute recess period each day, according to Mark Anderson, supervisor of health and physical education for the district.
“It’s really up to the principal to determine how much (recess) they will provide,” Anderson said. “Then the teachers have the authority, if they wanted to hold a kid in to finish classwork, they can do that even though our wellness policy discourages withholding physical activity or recess as punishment per se.”
In DeKalb, elementary students get 15 minutes a day for recess, according to Jennifer Powell, health and physical education coordinator for DeKalb. She says she wishes state PE requirements were more rigorous, “but I don’t control that.”
Gene Dunn, principal at Intown Academy in Atlanta, has been an educator in Georgia nearly 25 years. When he started his career in the early 1990s, elementary students were getting nearly double today’s amount of recess time – about 40 minutes a day.
Intown Academy is one of three elementary schools in metro Atlanta participating this school year in a program operated by Playworks, a national nonprofit organization that aims to improve the quality of play for elementary students.
Dunn says he’s heard from colleagues “their frustration with the fact that the time outside was being reduced and nobody was recognizing how critical that time was.”
“It (recess) just helps them (students) to be outside instead of being inside all day,” Dunn said.
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