In a sunny room with wooden blocks, watercolors and crocheted toy pastries, Megan Rosker has launched an unexpected protest.
The 29-year-old mother of three wants her children to play.
And by "play," she doesn't mean Little League or Xbox, piano or violin.
She means good, old-fashioned talking-to-yourself, make-believe, hang-sheets-for-a-fort, build-a-tunnel-from-boxes, tell-a-story-with-your-dolly and anoint-Tinker-Toys-with-magical-flying-powers.
Unstructured. Undefined. Run-across-the-playground-for-no-reason and build-a-tower-of-sand-just-because.
She didn't know this would be her cause.
But a few weeks after she enrolled her son at Bauder Elementary in Seminole last fall, she learned her son's school didn't have recess.
She approached the school's faculty and parent leaders at two meetings of the School Advisory Council.
What she heard was no. No time. No personnel. Too much academic ground to cover. And what happens when kids get hurt?
"We're just talking about playtime," said Rosker, a former kindergarten teacher turned homeschool mom and blogger. "We didn't even feel like we were asking for something radical."
However, recess has increasingly gone the way of blackboard and erasers, a relic of a school day many adults remember but lots of kids have never known.
With schools under the gun of state standards and high-stakes testing, more and more of the school day is dictated by state and federal law. Minutes once devoted to an impromptu game of playground tag are now more likely to be designated teacher-directed physical activity time, if not already assigned to reading or math instruction.
"Recess for children is a wonderful, good and healthy thing," concedes Lisa Bultmann, principal at Bauder Elementary. "The question . . . was not if recess has merit, but if it should be given a portion of time during the school day. Should this school year's established schedule be changed? What curriculum area would time come from? And the who, what and where of recess."
Indeed, it isn't that educators don't recognize the importance of play in child development. Numerous studies have shown that, from an early age, unstructured free play is instrumental in helping children learn with minimal anxiety in an environment ripe for social development.
"We all appreciate that there are huge benefits to children having a brain break and a social break," said Peggy Johns, the health education supervisor for Pinellas County schools.
But when Johns' office polled elementary school principals recently about their thoughts on recess, the feedback she received indicated they have four basic objections:
Child injuries increase when there is recess, they said. Some schools don't have the space for both play and PE. When children are spread out over an open area rather than confined to a classroom, it's harder to supervise them appropriately. And, of course, teachers are already under pressure to maximize every instructional minute they have to increase student performance.
"The district has never said the schools can't have recess," Johns said. But since the 1970s, it's been the rare principal who decided to reinstate free play as part of the school day.
Next year, Pinellas County classroom teachers will be encouraged to allow their children out for a few minutes of physical activity aside from PE class. But teachers will be expected to lead students in a purposeful physical activity.
It's a model already in place in Hillsborough County.
Steve Vanoer, Hillsborough's supervisor of physical education and health, said that while some teachers in his 192,000-pupil school district might lead their children to the playground for a little unstructured play, the district doesn't sanction that. Rather, classroom teachers are instructed to provide only directed activities in an effort to meet the state's 150-minute per week physical education requirement.
Recess, he said, is history: "I just don't see that coming back."
"If a teacher directs it, it's not play," said Roberta Golinkoff, professor of education at University of Delaware and co-author of two well-known books on play: Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less and A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool: Presenting the Evidence.
Golinkoff said incorporating free time into the instructional day is important, not only for kids to blow off steam, but for academic reasons as well. Research, she said, indicates that children who have recess and play opportunities during the school day remember more.
"Children need time to unwind and process what they're learning," she said. "Kids have to have the time to think for themselves."
In Pasco and Hernando counties, schools decide for themselves whether or not to have recess. Todd Cluff, principal of Sand Pine Elementary in Wesley Chapel, said that faced with pressure to increase instructional time, cutting kids' 10 to 15 minutes of recess is tempting.
"But the feedback I get from teachers is the kids just need to have some downtime where the activity is not directed by adults," Cluff said.
Back at Rosker's 1,000-square-foot Redington Shores home, 6-year-old Eli, 4-year-old Coko and 2-year-old Jude milled around the spacious playroom after coming back from playing outside with father Michael Rosker, 49, looking on.
Coko spread out a red scarf on the floor, took a seat on top and then meticulously filled two bowls with her crocheted toy doughnuts. Eli leaned over a couch and placed stickers in a book. Jude moved from a toddler-high coffee table to his mother's lap to a toy box by the window, a pumpkin trick-or-treat bucket filled with colored pens draped over his arm.
"I've always felt such relief when they get into that zone," Megan Rosker said. "They're playing. You're golden."
Michael Rosker, who remembers recess being his favorite part of the school day, said he's amazed that children playing could even be a "movement" requiring the kind of advocacy his wife has undertaken on her blog, LetChildrenPlay.com.
But it has.
Last fall, educators such as Golinkoff helped organize the first Ultimate Block Party in New York to help bring attention to the importance of play in children's lives. More than 50,000 people attended, and now other cities are following suit.
The issue prompted the formation of the U.S. Play Coalition, a group of educators and parks and recreation folks trying to solve the "problem" of getting kids to play.
Megan Rosker, who has been featured in the New York Times and on local television news, obviously feels passionate about the issue. She's hoping to compile some of her blog content into a book. At the same time, she can't hide how baffled she is by the whole flap:
"I thought I was just trying to get recess in my local public school."
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8707.