A first-hand account of how two Orlando moms drummed up support to pass Florida legislation requiring a 20-minute daily recess for most public elementary schools.
In 2014, when my twin boys (Zachary and Declan, now 11) were in second grade, they would come home from a full day of school crying that the day was too long. They had little time in the day to rest, relax, socialize and play with friends.
Their excitement for school was disappearing. There’s a short window of time to instill a love of learning in children, and I was afraid the window was going to close for my boys. In one of our conversations, I asked if they were excited to play at recess. They told me they didn’t get recess every day anymore, only on non-physical education (PE) days. That meant recess only once or twice a week. I was not OK with that. They were only 8 years old. Some of my best childhood memories took place on the playground during recess. I wanted my boys to have those memories. I wanted to fix this problem before it was too late for them, and so that my youngest son (Noah, now 7) wouldn’t experience the same thing.
Around the same time, my friend Amy Narvaez became concerned as well. Her girls were in second grade and kindergarten. Her youngest child wasn’t coming home telling tales of friendly adventures on the playground like her older sister had at her age.
Recess Is Necessary for Future Success
Recess as part of the school day is well researched and recognized as a critical component of healthy child development. During recess, lifelong skills are acquired for communication, negotiation, cooperation, sharing, problem solving and coping. These skills are not only foundations for healthy development but are more predicative of future success than any other measure. Recess optimizes social, psychological, emotional, physical and cognitive development; maximizes learning effectiveness and retention; and improves classroom behavior, memory and attention. It provides an unstructured break from instruction during which children can be children. Playing is learning.
Waiting for someone else to solve our problem wasn’t working, so Amy and I joined forces to bring back recess to our schools. Along the way, many other parents joined our mission. Although our children had their daily recess reinstated relatively quickly, we pressed forward because we knew that every child across the district (and eventually statewide) was worthy of the daily break that had been restored for our own kids.
Simply put, we were willing to dedicate our time and resources to advocating for our children. Because not every parent is able to do that, we felt a responsibility to keep fighting for their children too.
High Stakes Testing
We immediately discovered what happened to recess: testing. The stakes attached to the tests are high – for districts, for schools, for teachers and for our children. As a result, a quantity over quality philosophy is often taken when it comes to instruction and test preparation, overloading schedules and adding mandatory expectations on top of the State’s requirements. Recess slowly began to disappear. Meanwhile, our children were suffering. Their best interests had fallen to the bottom of the priority list.
Renewed efforts by parents to restore daily recess for our children began in the summer of 2014 in Lee County, then in Lake County. I became a “Recess Mom” in Orange County a few months later, and then the movement spread to Polk, Osceola, Duval, Miami-Dade, and Okaloosa Counties and more. Amy and I researched recess, met with principals and district-level employees, created advocacy groups on social media, distributed fliers, interviewed with local and national news media, addressed our school boards and superintendents and rallied for recess.
Lobbying for Recess
We gave it our all at the district level and experienced moderate success, but we weren’t able to obtain the research-based, universally recommended 20-minute daily recess policy districtwide. So, we joined forces with the Florida PTA and numerous child-centered and health and wellness organizations in an effort to solve the problem. We sent more emails and placed more phone calls to legislators than we can count, and then pooled our gas money and set our alarms for 3 a.m. to travel to Tallahassee almost weekly to “lobby” for a mandate that would ensure our kids would get the break in the day they needed. Our strategy was to hold our elected officials accountable while educating them about our position and building relationships.
It took two legislative sessions to achieve our goal, but our voices were heard. Sponsored by Representative Rene Plascencia in the House, a teacher, and Senator Anitere Flores in the Senate, a lawyer and mother of two, our little recess bill moved through the process and enjoyed support from a vast majority of legislators. Our bill was ultimately swept up with a variety of other bills and included in a larger education bill that earned cheers and jeers from both sides of the aisle.
The Recess Bill — Passed!
Certainly, our recess bill passing on its own would have been preferable, but a recess mandate passed, and we’re thrilled! Effective July 1, 2017, 20 consecutive minutes of unstructured, free-play recess must be provided every school day for elementary school children in kindergarten through fifth grade in addition to the existing 150 minutes per week of structured physical education. Unfortunately, because of an unexpected, last-minute exclusion for charter schools, the mandate isn’t perfect yet, but we’ll continue our work to ensure daily recess for all of Florida’s public elementary school children.
Three years ago, we set out to bring back recess for our own kids. Along the way, we were joined by thousands of parents committed to doing the same. We are proud that our effort serves as a reminder that the best interests of our children must always remain at the heart of the decision-making process, and that our educational system was set up to serve our children.
It’s a boost for parents who worry and wonder whether they have what it takes to identify a concern, step outside their comfort zone and change things for the better. Most of all, it’s a win for our kids. We came together and put the health and wellness of Florida’s children first, and that is something to celebrate.