LAND O'LAKES — Karley Green stared wide-eyed at the newly renovated playground behind the yellow ribbon and the shiny gold helium balloons.
Connerton Elementary School's outdoor play area had been closed for a year, as workers replaced equipment and ground cover to make it safer and more accessible to all children, including those with disabilities.
The $75,000 project was now complete, and the school's 970 students gathered for the grand reopening last week. A few speeches and lots of cheering later, the kids got to test the wheelchair-friendly glider, the soft padded flooring, the zip line and more.
"I like it because it's fun," said Karley, 11, one of the school's students with special needs. "I think it's cool. ... I like this better."
Second-graders who shared the play time gave the redesigned area a thumbs-up. The only complaint was that the zip line wait was too long.
At a time when academic performance hangs heavy over Florida schools, the question often arises of whether they can afford playground and recess time. The state's mandate of 150 minutes weekly for organized physical activity has also laid claim to free play at some schools.
Principal Aimee Boltze isn't interested in seeing Connerton lose that unstructured time.
"It's critical for kids to have recess," she said. "If you don't give kids some free time, they're not going to focus on what they need" to in the classroom.
That means all students, Boltze stressed.
When she arrived at the school a year ago, the new principal learned of its playground improvement plans. The idea was to have one area for students with disabilities, another for the able-bodied children.
She nixed that thought immediately. Everyone should be able to play together, she reasoned.
That plan won quick support from parents, who helped raise nearly $60,000 toward the effort, as well as teachers and students.
"We've done so much inclusion. This is just one more piece," teacher Sarah Owen said. "It's nice to have the socialization piece, just to give the kids time to be kids, pick and choose what they want and interact with their peers."
Increasingly, education and health experts are advising schools not to skimp on this aspect of the day.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, for instance, issued a statement a year ago calling recess "crucial" in the "optimal development of the whole child." The National Association for Sport and Physical Education shares that stance.
"Particularly in our society today, kids' lives are very structured," said Cheryl Richardson, a senior director for the Society of Health and Physical Educators.
Rather than go out and play, they head to soccer practice. Rarely do children get to decide what to play, who goes first, which rules to use and so on.
"Recess is one little tidbit of their lives where they have the chance to live and practice some of those skills," Richardson said.
She praised the idea of a single, fully accessible playground: "Kids with special needs already have social barriers. We don't want to add to that. It's important for them to enjoy playing together."
Maria Ferguson, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Center on Education Policy, said the national focus on test results put recess in the crosshairs. She suggested that school communities need to determine "how do we draw the line between being internationally competitive and being who we want to be."
She noted research supports the need to tend to all aspects of a child. The issue is particularly important for young boys, Ferguson added, noting that they "just need to move."
"We need to find a way to get them where they need to be (academically) but not sacrifice mental health and social well-being," she said.
Calusa Elementary School principal Kara Merlin backs that notion. The school has focused on improving its test results without skipping recess, Merlin said.
"Students need nonacademic time to refocus their energy," she said. "Play has a lot of social learning aspects involved, and recess is a time to develop those skills we teach during our social skills instruction."
She said the administration made plans to give teachers a break during recess, but teachers wanted to be part of the playground interactions.
Ultimately, decisions on how to structure recess at Pasco elementary schools is up to principals, learning community executive director David Scanga said. His office has heard from parents concerned that on some days, their kids get none.
"I don't know anyone who has canceled it," Scanga said, explaining further that some schools try to balance physical education courses, teacher-led activity and recess. Bottom line, though, is that the district wants students to have physical movement daily in some form.
At Connerton, the importance of playtime can't be missed. PTA president Patrece Gandy promised more.
"It's going to get bigger," she told the students, as they waited for the ribbon cutting. "It's going to get better."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected]