Students at Cape May Elementary School take recess before lunch on Tuesday.

Dale Gerhard

The weather was too cold and windy to play outside, but Maria Huba’s students were hula hooping, bowling and playing roller hockey last week in the Rock and Roll Rainy Day Recess Room.

“This gives them a place to play when they can’t go outside,” said Huba, who received a $500 grant from the Egg Harbor Township Education Foundation to buy equipment for the room at the E.H. Slaybaugh School. “There was a need for something to do besides play games or watch videos.”

Recess has been largely overlooked in the recent focus on strengthening academics in school. But the American Academy of Pediatrics, or AAP, believes the fourth “R” is just as important as the reading, writing and arithmetic that have formed the core of school reform efforts.

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In a policy statement in the December issue of Pediatrics, the AAP says recess is a vital part of children’s total development and serves as a necessary break from the rigors of concentrated work in the classroom. The report states recess provides cognitive, social, emotional and physical benefits that may not be appreciated with the decision to diminish it in favor of more time for class work.

But as concerns for childhood obesity have grown, recess is back in the spotlight.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Education and the National Association for Sport and Physical Education recommend that school-aged children get at least 60 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous physical activity, though it need not be during school hours.

State law requires that students in first grade through high school receive 150 minutes of health, safety and physical education per week. Last year, state Sen. Shirley Turner, R-Hunterdon, Mercer, citing the obesity problem, introduced a bill requiring public schools to provide a daily recess period for students in kindergarten through fifth grade. No action has been taken on that bill.

Cape May Elementary School recently completed a new playground to encourage students to be more active during recess.

“I have always believed recess is important,” Superintendent Victoria Zelenak said. “Students get some fresh air and can socialize, interact and play with each other in ways that they, themselves, organize. If there were ever a proposal to eliminate it, I’d fight tooth and nail to keep it.”

Cape May achieved the silver level of the Healthier U.S. School Challenge program last year. The program includes giving students recess time before, rather than after lunch. The Pediatrics report states studies have shown that when students have recess before lunch, they are better behaved and waste less food.

“They do seem to be calmer during lunch,” Zelenak said. “They’re not just rushing so they can go outside to play.”

Locally, AtlantiCare has been providing small Healthy Schools, Healthy Children grants since the 2006-07 school year to encourage schools to promote healthier lifestyles. The first year, 14 awards totalling $11,000 were given, but the program has steadily grown. For this school year, there are 32 grants totalling $31,150. So far, 144 mini-grants have been awarded totalling $138,900 for projects that include community gardens and fitness projects.

Samantha Kiley, director of community partnerships and engagement for the AtlantiCare Foundation, said the company makes an effort to promote projects that make health a priority and recognize the importance of physical activity.

“It’s really not that much money,” she said of the grants, which typically range from $500 to $1,500. “But it has allowed people to rise to the challenge, and it’s not always physical education teachers who apply for them. We also worked with schools to create opportunities for physical activity during learning, like going outside for science lessons.”

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines recess as “regularly scheduled periods within the elementary school day for unstructured physical activity and play.” No set amount of time is identified, but recess seems to range from 15 to 25 minutes. The Pediatrics report notes that in Japan, primary school children get a 10- to 15-minute break every hour to reflect the fact that attention spans wane after about 40 to 50 minutes of intense instruction.

Pam Walcoff, the physical education teacher at the Slaybaugh School, said recess and physical education classes are very different types of activities, and both are important.

“Phys ed class is structured. It follows a curriculum,” she said. “At recess, they can do more what they want.”

At Slaybaugh, students get two physical education classes per week, plus recess time, to meet the state requirement. The Recess Room helps keep that time in active play. Students rotate through different activities, with roller hockey a favorite among them.

“You get to hit a ball,” 7-year-old Matthew DiTizio explained.

“And you can ride around,” classmate Christian Rando, 7, said.

Carina Sharra, 7, likes the hula hoop, because it gives her extra exercise. Elizabeth Hodges, 8, said she prefers bowling, because she can write her name on the scoreboard.

Huba said teachers use the room for students with severe allergies or disabilities who cannot always go outside.

Kiley said adults forget how hard it is to be required to sit in a chair all day and pay attention to a teacher.

“Even in an office, we are usually free to get up and move around,” she said.

Contact Diane D’Amico:


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