February 22, 2013
(The Record, Bergen County, NJ) -- It's a bill kids would approve: Lawmakers want to mandate recess for all public school students from kindergarten to fifth grade.
Supporters say children need to get moving, and requiring at least 20 minutes a day for recess will help ease the nation's obesity crisis. But some North Jersey school officials say students already have playtime. And while they agree exercise is helpful, they are wary of another state mandate.
Kids spend too much time watching television and playing video games when they should be running around outdoors, says Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Mercer.
"Our children are very sedentary," Turner told a legislative panel considering her bill.
Turner is sponsoring legislation that would require that students in kindergarten through fifth grade get a 20-minute recess every day. The bill made it through a Senate committee on Thursday.
New Jersey school administrators say they support recess, but a state mandate goes too far.
"It's a shame that we have to legislate recess now. We are over- legislating everything in our schools," said Larry Hughes, the interim superintendent of the Montvale school district.
Hughes, who used to serve as the legislative representative of the Bergen County Association of Superintendents, said he was confident other administrators could address the need for recess and other developmental programs without the state's involvement.
In Ridgefield, where students have recess built into their 40- minute lunch period, interim Superintendent Harry Groveman said he, too, was wary of a new state requirement.
"We probably cover the 20 minutes, but I would probably be opposed to the legislation, based on the fact that it's another mandate that should be left to local control," he said.
The New Jersey Department of Education does not keep track of how many schools provide recess, and it does not have regulations related to play time, says Barbara Morgan, a department spokeswoman.
In addition to mandating the 20-minute recess, the bill says no student may be denied recess "for any reason." It also prohibits scheduling recess immediately before or after physical education classes.
Turner, the bill's sponsor, said the requirements are necessary because children need more time to exercise and play.
"They sit in front of their TV sets for hours at a time, in front of their computers, in front of their electronic games, and they do very little in the way of physical activity," she said.
The legislation passed unanimously in the Senate's Education Committee on Thursday. It has not yet been introduced in the Assembly.
School representatives told the committee they supported the idea of recess in every school, but they asked for more flexibility.
"We believe that there may be instances where recess should be denied," said Jennifer Keyes-Maloney, of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association. For example, she said, recess may need to be withheld for children caught bullying other students.
"What we're asking for is some discretion here," she said.
Sharon Seyler, a representative of the New Jersey School Boards Association, said the state also needs to consider whether the recess requirement would add costs by lengthening the school day or forcing schools to hire more staff.
Turner said she was considering an amendment to her bill that would allow teachers more discretion in giving students recess. And she emphasized the importance of ensuring every child gets exercise.
"We need to go back to the days when children would be required to have recess," Turner said. "Everyone deserves recess."
Joyce Hemphill, a University of Wisconsin expert on play and a board member of the American Association for the Child's Right to Play, said advocates' push for recess in recent decades has not made as much headway as they hoped. In part, she blamed some schools' reaction to the federal No Child Left Behind law of 2002, which threatened sanctions on schools that failed to meet goals for test scores.
"Some schools started to adopt the idea that more seat time was more learning time," she said. "They were putting children in math or reading all day long."
Hemphill said recess breaks are important for children of all ages, as well as adults, and cited Google's encouragement of unstructured free time during the work day for employees. Beyond the physical and social benefits, she said, "it allows the brain to process information. If you're stuck on a problem, if you take a break it gets rid of those dead ends so you can take it from a fresh perspective. And the movement of play reduces stress."
Sen. Michael Doherty, R-Warren, said he voted for the measure partly because of his fond memories of recesses spent on an "asphalt patch" near his school.
"We'd go out to play kickball," he said. "It was the best. It was awesome."
The New Jersey Education Association has not taken a position on the bill, said Christy Kanaby, the group's associate director of public relations.
"However, we believe that every elementary school child should have recess, and we're working with the sponsors to make sure the bill is as strong as it can be," Kanaby wrote in an email.
And not all administrators said they opposed the mandate.
Englewood Cliffs Superintendent Robert Kravitz, whose district already has 20 minutes of recess during lunch, applauded the proposed state law, citing studies showing that physical activity can help children learn better.
"I'm absolutely for it," he said. "Every child needs some type of movement and exercise during the day. I truly believe it's important."
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