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Officials: Short recess helps students focus

November 03, 2003|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

Fighting back the sniffles, fourth-grader Corey Scharenbroch huddled against the wind on a recent afternoon on the playground at Smithsburg Elementary School.

Corey couldn't have been happier. The 8-year-old, who had his eyes on a yellow rubber ball that was being kicked through the air, said he'd rather be outside at recess than inside playing games.

Across Washington County, public elementary school students get a break of about 15 minutes in the school day to run, play and socialize with their friends, but school officials take varied views on how recess plays into their day.

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At Grace Academy, a private school in Hagerstown, students get two breaks.

Steve Velthuis, elementary principal at Grace Academy, said students in kindergarten through sixth grade at his school typically get a 20-minute recess after lunch and an additional 20- to 30-minute recess mid-afternoon.

"We find that the students who like to get the wiggles out do a little bit better with more breaks," Velthuis said.

Their school day runs from 8:20 a.m. to 3:15 p.m., he said, about the same as a public school day.

Velthuis expressed surprise that public school students get only about 15 minutes of recess, which is about five minutes shorter than the amount of time St. Mary's School children get for recess, St. Mary's Principal William Beliveau said.

But some public elementary school officials say recess is not the only time students get a chance to move around.

JoEtta Palkovitz-Brown, the school system's executive director of elementary education, said although the amount of time students get for recess has not really changed over the years, the way teachers approach teaching has.

"The brain does need to take a break from time to time, but it doesn't mean a recess," Palkovitz-Brown said.

Elementary school teachers are not "lectureholics" like their high school counterparts, said Cara Reed, principal at Pangborn Elementary School.

Students don't sit in the same seat all day, she said. They might be in one group for an hour and then move to another group. Teachers vary activities, she said.

Teachers notice a difference in students' attention spans on rainy days when youngsters are kept inside, Reed said.

Barbara Stouffer, principal at Conococheague Elementary School, said the standard recess time for her students is 15 minutes, but she said Conococheague classes are dismissed at 2:30 p.m., so students have the opportunity to play outside after school.

The school, west of Huyetts, draws students from mostly single-family homes, an advantage, she said, over city schools, which draw students mostly from apartments who might not have the chance to play freely outside once school lets out.

"Children living in apartments need more of a release at recess," Stouffer said.

Parents are more fearful these days to allow their children to go outside on their own, she said. The children who live in more confined areas get less opportunity for fresh air and exercise, she said.

The confinement can get even more complicated for students who also go to day care before and after school, she said, because even if the children go outdoors, it usually is in a structured environment.

"Both groups of students (those living in rural and urban areas) need planned physical breaks during the workday," school system psychologist Henry Lynn said.

He said a study performed in the 1980s comparing students from Spanish Harlem to students in rural West Virginia showed that each group had an equal need for breaks.

Lynn said a 15-minute break has been the standard recess for about 70 years in the United States.

More problems may arise, especially among students with attention-deficit disorders, if the breaks are longer, he said. Hyperactive students generally take a little more time to wind down after recess.

There are no state requirements for recess length, said Carol Mowen, school system spokeswoman.

The mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act have caused at least one school to cut back on recess.

Robin Handler, principal at Smithsburg Elementary School, said recess was cut back this year from about 20 minutes to 15 minutes for fourth- and fifth-graders because teachers wanted more time to work with the curriculum.

Lower grades that had two recesses last year have one this year, she said.

"It's all related to how much time there is in the day," she said.

Handler said teachers report fewer accidents on the playground when breaks are shorter. She said teachers are not reporting to her that students are having a hard time adjusting to the shorter breaks.

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