Play time is over: Fairfield parents get serious about bringing recess to middle school
FAIRFIELD — It was at parent orientation recently at Roger Ludlowe Middle School that Fairfield parents Crissy Kelly and Susannah Emra noticed something that gave them pause.
“They showed a slide with the breakdown of the day. When I saw how every minute of the day was accounted for, just personally knowing my own son, I knew that was going to be an issue. The more I talked to other moms, they said the same thing,” said Kelly.
The answer, Kelly and Emra thought, was recess, or some similarly unstructured free period in which students might run around outside, read a book for pleasure, socialize, or get ahead of work.
Kelly and Emra began researching the idea. They compiled a list of middle schools, first locally, then statewide, and began making phone calls to administrators to see what kind of schedules other districts had, learning along the way that many administrators felt the term “flex time” was more palatable than recess. Early responses suggest that nearby districts like Westport, New Canaan, Darien, Greenwich and Ridgefield all have some kind of flex time built into their daily schedules.
They also decided to check the science, and began scouring the internet for studies about the benefits of play to children. One 2011 study by Boston College psychologist Peter Gray titled “The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents,” posits that allowing children free time to play can facilitate their ability to develop interests, problem-solve, follow rules, understand and regulate emotions, make friends and “experience joy.”
“There’s such a social, emotional and academic benefit to unstructured time,” Emra said. Though she and Kelly said administrators would have to work out the logistics of adding flex time, they said they’d like to see 10 minutes added to the existing 30-minute lunch period. Those 40 minutes could then be cut in half, allowing for 20 minutes to eat and 20 minutes of supervised flex-time.
“We’re not saying we want to do this because we think our kids want recess. We’re saying we want to do this because we think there are so many benefits to having an unstructured break after lunch.”
Kelly and Emra said other research has led them to believe that a flex period could help in-class performance, attentiveness and attendance, while mitigating the effects of stress and anxiety and potentially reducing the risk of depression in students.
“All day you are shuttled from one activity to the other. You can’t read a mom’s Facebook post without seeing, ‘My kids are stressed.’ If you feel like everything you do is for adult approval, or your GPA (grade point average), everything you do is for or because of someone else. That’s when the anxiety comes in,” Kelly said.
Now, Kelly and Emra want to share what they’ve found with other parents and the school community. In April, they created a Facebook group, called “Flex Time in Fairfield, CT Middle Schools,” where parents can weigh in.
They’ve also reached out to administrators within the district, whom they said have been open to the conversation.
In a joint statement, the district’s middle school principals — Megan Tiley of Roger Ludlowe, Anthony Formato of Tomlinson, and Gary Rosato of Fairfield Woods — did not clearly indicate their level of interest in the proposal, but acknowledged that they are due to review day-to-day schedules in the next year.
“We will be looking at all aspects of our schedule and how we can best support students academically, socially and emotionally. We have items to consider around appropriate academic/emotional interventions, lunch times, supervision of safe outdoor spaces and offering our current elective offerings in Fairfield in comparison to other districts throughout the state,” the statement said.
Superintendent of Schools Toni Jones, with whom Kelly and Emra have been in contact, noted that she was once a middle school principal herself in a school out-of-state that offered flex time. Jones said she believes generally in the concept of giving students at least some time to themselves and that already some time is granted to students for unstructured exploration. To add a flex period across the board, though, would come with a slew of logistical questions that would need answering.
“It takes a lot of additional staff inside and outside to have supervision. And naturally, we have space considerations,” Jones said.
Still, Kelly and Emra are optimistic that time could be cut out of the day and hope to arrange meetings with administrators at which they can present their research in the near future.
“I feel like we can work within the confines of the school day for something that’s so important and something that will benefit everyone. We’re not talking about just the boys or just the athletes,” said Kelly, referencing a concern they’ve often heard that the flex period would only serve half the school population, namely boys.
“This is not a gendered thing,” said Emra. “It’s not just recess. It’s not just running around. It’s whatever the kid needs to do to make their day better. Go sit under a tree and read.”
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