Speaking up for Recess in Chicago Public Schools

June 03, 2009 | Written By:


By Amanda Chablani, HSC policy intern

On May 7, I boarded a bus to Springfield, Ill. with 160 Chicago Public Schools (CPS)
students and parents in an effort to convince legislators to bring recess back
to CPS.  I only learned of the lobby day the week
before; my shocked reaction, “There’s no recess?!” illustrated my ignorance in
the matter.  I decided to do a bit of research to learn more.

Of course, I started with our own Healthy Schools Campaign blog, where I learned how
we’ve talked about recess, and related school health issues
in the past
.  There, I found that while Illinois mandates daily
physical education, many school districts petition for an exception. So in
addition to lacking free play during recess, these kids don’t have access to
many other types of physical activity on a regular basis.  And students in
low-income communities are much more likely to be affected by both of these
issues; schools that are trying desperately to improve test scores aren’t
making time for recess or phys. ed (or art, music, and drama), and there are
many areas of the city where parents hesitate to let their children walk to
school (although there are a growing number of walking
school buses
around the city and
across the country).

But given that research supports the idea that recess has a positive effect on learning and social development, how is it that there is no recess in many CPS schools?  With a bit of digging,
I learned that CPS lost recess more than 25 years ago when many districts
became closed-campus and  shortened their school day.  Today, at most
schools, students have 20 minutes to eat lunch and their day ends at 2:30 p.m.

But not all schools have lost recess. After working with HSC
for a couple of months now, I have no doubt that school health is a social justice
issue – and recess is no exception. Natalie Pardo at the Chicago
found in her survey of 485 CPS schools that “recess is available
in only about 10 percent of schools that are at least 95 percent low-income.”

Free play time, especially for kids in elementary school, is
critical to social development as well as to a life-long enjoyment of physical
activity — and, I just have to believe that kids need a break from school work
just as we adults need a break now and then too.  But even more central to
all of the work I’ve done here at HSC is the message that these things are
particularly necessary and less available to kids living and attending school
in low-income neighborhoods.

The good news is that the parent advocates I went to
Springfield with have made progress in their efforts to bring recess back to
Chicago! Last week, parent leaders presented more than 4,000 signed postcards
in support of recess at a public school board meeting, where several parents
also provided testimony. As a result, school leaders agreed to meet with parent
and community leaders to establish a group that will address the recess issue
and find solutions for Chicago schoolchildren. We’ll keep you posted as the
effort expands.

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