Tennessee Debates How Much Time Schoolkids Should Get For Fun And Games

Mar 20, 2017

Many have fond memories of recess, those breaks in the school day when they could get up and move around.

But in an era of regular testing and crowded schedules, schools in Tennessee have been struggling to figure out how to work recess into the day.

At many schools, kids have been spending less and less time on the playground. Educators blame high-stakes testing and mandates that so much time be dedicated to core subjects.

Charlie Friedman, though, is a believer in free play.

"Whether you're a young child β€” or honestly an adult β€” I think getting up and moving stimulates your brain, and keeps you alert and awake," Friedman says. "It's part of just being a well-rounded human."

So the founder of Nashville Classical, a charter school near Five Points, stresses playtime. PE, brain breaks and 30 minutes of recess each day, no matter the weather.

"Even indoors, you can run centers and you can have games and blocks and action figures and Play-Doh," he says. "Any number of activities that children can do that's less structured in which there's choice and variety."

Those might sound like fun things to do. But under a law passed last year in Tennessee, it's not clear they count as recess.

Many educators say that law is too restrictive. For one thing, it sets firm rules on how long recess should be. Kindergartners and first graders have to take three, 15-minute breaks each day. Older elementary students must take two, 20-minute breaks.

And they have to be "non-structured," meaning teachers can't lead them in play.

"A lot school systems were just ignoring the law," says state Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, "and that's never a good position to be in."

Earlier this year, Dunn proposed repealing the requirement. That would've given control back to the districts.

But the state's recess law has many defenders. Parents have been particularly supportive. State Rep. Roger Kane, who chairs the House's Education Instruction & Planning Subcommittee, says he's heard from more than a dozen parents who back mandatory recess.

"They like the fact that we've implemented recess back into the school day. It had been relegated to 45 minutes a week, which is totally unacceptable."

A compromise is now making its way through the Tennessee legislature. Instead of daily recess requirements, schools will be given weekly targets. And they'll have more flexibility β€” in what activities are allowed to count and whether teachers can take part.

Kane, R-Knoxville, says he was surprised to hear schools had struggled so much with the issue.

"Who knew recess could be so complicated? It seems just like fun."

State lawmakers say if they find these new rules don't work, they'll come back to the issue a third time.

The important thing, most agree, is to strike a balance between class time and playtime.