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Virginia Law Allows More Recess, Unstructured Time For Elementary Students

Kids play knockout
Six-year-old Nick Pekarsky (right) and nine-year-old Alex Pekarsky (left) play knockout in the family's Fairfax County backyard earlier this year. (Image: Megan Pauly/WCVE)

Parents across Virginia have been raising concerns about the amount of physical activity their kids get during the school day. Nearly 20 years ago, Virginia’s standards of accreditation were revised to require recess in elementary school.

But Virginia’s state code is just starting to catch up. WCVE’s Megan Pauly has more for Learning Curve.

In Fairfax County, six-year-old Nicholas Pekarsky plays knockout with his older siblings in the family’s backyard basketball court. By far, he’s got the most energy can tell by how loud he cheers when he makes a goal, and his  frustration when he misses.

Pauly: So I heard you guys would like some more recess, is that true? Kids:Yesssss.

Nick’s mom Stella Pekarsky agrees. She says he doesn’t get enough time to release his energy during the school day. Fairfax County requires 15 minutes of recess per day and recommends 20. The District also says recess will be scheduled before lunch, but only “when possible.”

In her son’s case, the school day begins at 9:00 a.m., and he doesn’t get to go outside until 1:45, well after lunch. Pekarsky says it’s uncomfortable for kids to be stationary for so long.

Pekarsky: My son gets up and walks around the room. The teacher has asked him why – I have asked him why – and it’s very simple: he says, because I need to get up and move, I can’t sit for that long. I cannot do it.

Pekarsky is part of an advocacy group called More Recess for Virginians. Hundreds of parents across the state have expressed frustration with how little free time and physical activity their kids get in school.

Earlier this year, Pekarsky teamed up with other moms in the group like Fabiola Green to take the issue to the General Assembly – calling unstructured time like recess a valuable part of the educational experience.

Green: It’s also how do I treat my peers, how do I interact with my peers, how do I speak up for myself.

They worked with their local school board to craft language for legislation allowing more flexible use of unstructured time. The bill passed, and 67th District Democratic Delegate Karrie Delaney was a co-sponsor.

Delaney: There is so much evidence that shows that when children have a break in their academic day to run and be active, it helps them be more focused and have better academic outputs throughout the rest of the day.”

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, recess is key in the development of kids’ social emotional, cognitive and physical skills, in addition to the obvious health benefits.

While Virginia’s two-paragraph law does not explicitly require more recess, it allows local school boards to include unstructured time - like recess - in up to 15% of total instructional time.

The law also requires schools to offer physical education and physical fitness opportunities, but doesn’t require a certain number of minutes per day. State code suggests a goal of 150 minutes of physical activity during the week, or about 30 minutes per day.

In Henrico, Chesterfield and Richmond Public Schools - district policy spells out 30 minutes of recess each day for elementary kids. But in other countries like Finland, students get much more time to play: as much as a 15 minute break for every 45 minutes of instructional time.

Pekarsky: This isn’t some rogue, crazy idea: you just want kids outside to play all day. It’s common sense when there’s so much research that shows kids need to be out, they need to be playing, that’s how they learn. They need time to decompress, they need to rest their brain.

In the U.S., Pekarsky points to what’s called the Liink Project, started in Texas a few years ago. In this model, students have four 15 minute breaks for unstructured play during the school day, two before lunch and two afterwards.

Richmond's Carver Elementary gym (Photo: courtesy Mariah White)

While there’s growing support to expand physical activity in Virginia schools, some districts are constrained in the colder months by aging facilities.

Mariah White has two kids at Richmond’s Carver Elementary where’s she’s PTA president. She said the space used as a gym is a small cement block room in the basement, and hasn’t changed since she went to school there in 1973.

White: To me it wasn’t a gym, so I’m sure to the children it’s just a room...and empty room with a couple of things where they know they go to PE class.

None of the Richmond area school districts have announced plans to increase recess.

Parents in Fairfax are starting small. They’re asking for two 20 minutes breaks, instead of one, and the district’s superintendent has promised to make changes. Their neighbor - Prince William County - announced they’ll double the allowed recess per day for elementary kids from 15 minutes to 30 minutes.

For Learning Curve, I’m Megan Pauly, WCVE News.