Students like MacKenna Darling, a first grader at Freeman Elementary School, are helping Haysville USD 261 pilot a program that increases recess breaks at its elementary schools. (Rafael Garcia/The Beacon)
Students like MacKenna Darling, a first grader at Freeman Elementary School, are helping Haysville USD 261 pilot a program that increases recess breaks at its elementary schools. (Rafael Garcia/The Beacon)

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One of the hardest decisions 6-year-old MacKenna Darling makes each morning is picking what she’ll do at each of the four recesses her class has every day at Freeman Elementary School.

Some recesses, the first grader prefers going down the slide — fast most of the time, but sometimes slowly. Other times, a game of tag is where it’s at, just as long as she’s not “it.”

Recess, unsurprisingly, is her favorite “subject.” 

In Haysville USD 261’s six elementary schools, though, more recess could actually be the key to better performance in academic classes, including math and reading. The school district is in the second year of Recreation, Engagement, Communication, Exploration, Social-Emotional and Success — a pilot program that swaps some classroom minutes with time on the playground.

So far, the results are promising.

“You can tell they’re more focused, especially in our whole-group readings from 2 to 3 p.m.,” said Nicole McDaniel, Darling’s teacher. “That can be hard for 6- and 7-year-olds. We get a recess right before it and after it, so they know that if they can get through that hour, they get to go to recess.”

Freeman Elementary School’s kindergarten students prepare for a relay race during one of four 15-minute recess breaks they get each day. (Rafael Garcia/The Beacon)

A road trip to Texas

A few years ago, Jennifer Reed, Haysville USD 261’s assistant superintendent for learning services, and other administrators began realizing that a heavy focus on increasing classroom time was hurting kids.

Pressures related to national policies such as No Child Left Behind had led schools across the nation to clamp down on “non-essentials,” including recess.

“School became so rigorous and academically focused, and to do that, we’d taken more recess from the kids,” Reed said.

But classroom minutes aren’t effective if students aren’t ready or willing to learn, and in Haysville, teachers were increasingly seeing students who weren’t behaviorally, socially or emotionally ready to succeed in the classroom.

So Reed and other Haysville staffers took a trip to Texas.

There, the crew visited two elementary schools that had implemented The LiiNK Project, a national initiative to increase the number of minutes U.S. schools allot for physical activity and outdoor time. In addition to getting students more active, schools using the project reported higher test scores, better mental health and fewer disciplinary issues.

Reed and the staffers took notes at the Texas schools — even videoing the school’s recess entry and exit procedures. On the road trip back, they pulled out pencils and papers to plot their own version of the program for Haysville schools. They had to figure out how to fit more recess breaks into an already crammed schedule.

Monroe Lee and Marley Briley, kindergartners at Haysville USD 261’s Freeman Elementary School, choose to run a recess relay race together. (Rafael Garcia/The Beacon)

Playgrounds as classroom extensions

Some states, including Missouri, require schools to provide students with at least 20 minutes of recess every day. But in Kansas, nothing explicitly mandates recess. 

Instead, Kansas State Department of Education policy is that school districts may count up to two recess breaks each day to comply with a law mandating at least 1,116 school hours each academic year. Anything more than two recesses requires a waiver.

Haysville USD 261 proposed four 15-minute recess breaks a day, with one after every 45 to 60 minutes of classroom time. That’s more than double the 26.9 minutes U.S. elementary schools schedule for recess on average.

Two of the recess breaks would be unstructured, while the other two would be organized around staff-led activities, such as relay races or dancing.

Additionally, the students would have access to playground structures such as slides and swings during only two of the breaks, and no equipment — think balls and jump ropes — would be allowed at any of the breaks.

More: Few Wichita students walk to school. Here’s why they should.

“With technology and video games, kids don’t get to (use their imagination) anymore,” Reed said. “They need to be bored, and they need to interact with each other to figure out how to make things fun.”

And even though students would not be sitting in classrooms, they would still be receiving valuable lessons in social-emotional learning and working with other students, Reed said.

The state Board of Education, at a summer 2020 meeting, was excited about Haysville USD 261’s innovative approach to recess, Reed said. A year and a half later, after the board granted the waiver, students and teachers have bought in, too. 

“Parents have told us their kids are exhausted after the first few weeks of the school year,” Reed said. “But they’re not just exhausted just because we incorporated more recess, it’s because they’re exhausted from learning.”

MacKenna Darling, a first grader at Haysville USD 261’s Freeman Elementary, said recess makes her tired. But it also helps her focus in class. (Rafael Garcia/The Beacon)

More recess, more focus in the classroom

Haysville launched the pilot program at its six elementary schools in the 2020-21 school year by expanding to four recess breaks for kindergarten and first grade classes. This year, the district expanded the program to second grade classes. Another grade will be added each school year.

“We’re choosing to roll it out that way so that this year’s second graders will never know any different,” Reed said. “So when we roll it into third grade, the kids will already know the process. The only ones learning will be the teachers.”

As with any other school metric, comparing programs that started during the pandemic is difficult. But so far, the most measurable effect from the increase in recesses has been fewer disciplinary referrals from better behavior in the classroom and on the playground, Reed said.

Teachers also report better focus and engagement, not only from their students but from themselves.

“It’s been great for kids’ brains, but it’s also about exercise,” McDaniel said. “It keeps the blood flowing in their hearts, and you can definitely see a huge improvement in how they focus and behave.”

And if teachers’ anecdotes hold out, Reed said, the district should expect better test scores over the next few years as the program and students get into the older grades.

Having started school during the program’s first year, Darling doesn’t know what it’s like to only have one or two recesses a day. In the classroom, the first grader said, she has a lot of energy, and it’s sometimes hard to focus.

But more recess definitely helps.

“I just stay calm and wait for recess.”

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Garcia was an education reporter at The Wichita Beacon and Report for America corps member.