Parents in Pinellas and across Florida push for the return of recess

First- and second-graders play at Sexton Elementary School, which has 15-minute recess breaks. The principal is a runner.
First- and second-graders play at Sexton Elementary School, which has 15-minute recess breaks. The principal is a runner.
Published Dec. 12, 2015

Finn Cox would come home from kindergarten with flushed cheeks and blond hair matted with sweat. After nearly an hour of physical education, he exhausted all of his remaining energy on the Shore Acres Elementary playground, scaling equipment and racing down the slide, reveling in the freedom of recess.

Then came first grade.

Not only was P.E. reduced, but recess disappeared from his day.

"He went from loving school to having tears every morning because he missed going outside," said his mother, Stephanie Cox.

From one year to the next, Finn, now 7, went from having 50 minutes of P.E. and 20 minutes of recess every day to just 50 minutes of P.E. three days a week. Recess gave way to indoor "brain breaks" — 20 minutes of physical activity, like dance or yoga, led by the teacher. But that wasn't enough for Finn or his mother.

Now, Cox and other parents are petitioning the Pinellas County School Board and superintendent Mike Grego to bring back recess for all elementary school students — part of a grass roots push that is catching fire across the state, and this month resulted in a bill in the Legislature that would make recess mandatory in Florida.

In Orange County, 1,600 signatures on a pro-recess petition gained the attention of national news networks this year. Lee County's petition has nearly 1,300 signatures, and Osceola County's 700. Polk County parents addressed their petition to every superintendent in the state, gathering 3,000 signatures.

The Pinellas effort, with 2,200 signatures since October, demands 20 minutes of daily, unstructured outdoor recess for elementary students, in addition to five days of P.E. The petition has inspired April Griffin, the School Board chairwoman in neighboring Hillsborough County, to push for more recess in her district as well.

While local districts have responded by offering nonbinding resolutions and recommendations, a Tallahassee legislator filed a bill on Dec. 1 in the Florida House that would require at least 20 consecutive minutes of "supervised, safe, and unstructured free-play recess" every day for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

"We're not legislating a curriculum," said state Rep. Rene Plasencia, an Orlando Republican who teaches high school social studies and coaches track and cross country. "What we're doing is we're saying you have to have a basic amount of recess."

• • •

Recess has eroded steadily over the years, elbowed from the school day as the state has ramped up accountability measures.

"The school districts are focused on their overall school grades and their district grades, and recess is not part of their district grades," Plasencia said. "They want the least amount of time away from preparation."

The lawmaker is venturing into what is thought to be uncharted territory. Officials believe his proposal, if approved, would be the first time recess was mandated in Florida. The same may hold true for Pinellas.

"Even in the '90s, you couldn't say that every school in the county had recess," said Pam Moore, Pinellas' associate superintendent of teaching and learning services. She has worked in the district for 43 years.

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As for physical education, the state's standards are straightforward. Since 2008, school boards have been required to provide 150 minutes of P.E. each week for students in kindergarten through fifth grade. The state left it up to districts to divvy up that time.

Pinellas prides itself on requiring certified P.E. teachers to teach physical education for all 150 minutes. Hillsborough employs certified P.E. instructors to teach for 60 minutes a week and lends the remaining 90 minutes to a classroom teacher, usually for recess.

Pinellas students used to have daily P.E. for 30 minutes. But two years ago, the district pushed for schools to have 50-minute blocks of P.E. three days a week to simplify school schedules and make it easier to calculate data for teacher evaluations.

Cox and her group of Pinellas parents are seeking a policy that mimics the state's requirement for P.E. Moore met with the group, listened to their concerns, and followed up by surveying elementary schools about their practices.

Principals from all 76 elementary schools in the district reported back: 24 have recess daily across all grades, and three have recess for some grades. Forty schools give brain breaks school-wide, and five schedule brain breaks only for some grades. Moore found that 16 schools have neither recess nor brain breaks on their schedules.

She said she is working on a proclamation that will have "strong language of encouraging schools to ensure that they have that, a 15- to 20-minute period" of physical activity.

"We really are on the same page with this, but we don't want to mandate that it has to look the same at every school," she said.

Brain breaks, she said, are the district's way of incorporating physical activity. However, Dr. Robert Murray, co-author of The Crucial Role of Recess in School, published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, disagrees with the practice.

"They're not the same and shouldn't be equated as the same," he said, and neither are P.E. and recess. "Recess is a time when kids learn to deal with other kids socially, and that involves the kind of life skills that we value as adults."

Moore said many teachers in schools with recess give up their planning periods to supervise it. A volunteer, such as a parent, cannot supervise it alone — that poses too much of a liability, she said. And having a certified staff member around full-time comes with a price tag.

She said the 16 schools without recess or brain breaks can get those added to their schedules without a districtwide policy.

Plasencia, sponsor of the House bill, rejected the notion that schools would need more funding to mandate recess.

"The teacher that has the students has to take them out for recess," he said. "To say you have to pay for personnel to watch is disingenuous."

But Moore also argued that the elementary school day in Pinellas is six hours long. Most school districts in the state have seven-hour days, she said.

"There aren't enough hours in the day to be able to do that for every class — to have it every day and to have physical education."

• • •

Every day, Harper Boucher, 6, comes home dirty and sweaty from Sexton Elementary, which has 15 minutes of daily recess in addition to periodic brain breaks and three days of 50-minute blocks of P.E. for all grades. Sometimes, he has recess twice a day.

"That's one of the things I like about Sexton is the healthy lifestyle," said principal Suzette Burns, who is a runner. "We have to develop them as a holistic individual."

This is the second year that designated recess time has been the norm at Sexton, which recently was recognized as one of the top 10 healthiest schools in the nation. In that time, Burns has seen a change in her students.

Discipline referrals for classroom disruption are "close to zero," she said. "I firmly believe it's because they have that wiggle time."

Burns arranges a rotation for all grades to have a chance to go outside. It helps to have a large field to split between recess and P.E.

"The kids need to have that social time," she said. "There is a benefit to unstructured play."

Harper's mother, Gina Cocks, said she signed the Pinellas petition because she believes all students should have what her son is fortunate to have at his zoned neighborhood school.

"I want my kid to come home from school dirty and sweaty," she said. "I want to know that he got into something when he was there."

Contact Colleen Wright at or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.