Recess: Inside or Out a Judgment Call

Recess: Inside or Out a Judgment Call

Parents say kids need more outdoor play.

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Every year, as winter sets in and temperatures hover around freezing even on the sunniest days, you can hear this familiar lament among parents of kids in Montgomery County public schools:

“Why don’t our kids have more outdoor recess during the winter? Why are they stuck in a classroom watching videos when the sun is shining?” And this: “In my day, we played outside every day—didn’t matter how cold, didn’t matter if there was snow on the ground…”

While the complaints are perennial, growing public awareness of the problem of childhood obesity, speared by First Lady Michelle Obama no less, has added a certain urgency this winter.

That may be why some parents decided to tackle the issue head on. An online petition titled “MCPS Parents Support Outdoor Recess in the Cold” is directed at the Board of Education and asks that all county schools be required to provide 30 minutes of active recess every school day.

Sponsored by a “MoCo mom of two boys,” it has attracted more than 600 signees so far and is generating vigorous debate as it makes the rounds of school list serves. It’s difficult to tell, though, how many signees actually are from Montgomery County since the list doesn’t specify what county the signee lives in. Most names are followed by the abbreviation for Maryland; a few signees are from other states.

Even so, the petition has hit a nerve, raising concerns about health issues, inadequately dressed children, proper staffing for recess whether inside or out and—of course—lawsuits should a child be injured or frostbitten while out in the cold. Check out these posts from the list serve of a Silver Spring elementary school:

“The kids should be going outside and playing, burning off energy and learning how to deal with the cold rather than growing up learning how to stay inside and being afraid of the cold.”

“Not to try to put a damper on this petition but what is the threshold at which students should stay indoors? My daughter is asthmatic and the cold weather is a big trigger.”

While the petition may succeed in reaching its goal of 1,000 signees, it doesn’t seem likely that it will succeed in changing MCPS policy on outdoor recess, which leaves it up to principals to decide what’s best on a given day, depending on the temperature (especially the wind chill factor), the condition of playgrounds, and weather forecasts.

“There are no set parameters. Our principals generally want to get kids outside if they can,” MCPS spokesman Dana Tofig says. “Of course, we want kids to run around. But you have to make a judgment call.”

And making that decision is not as easy as it seems, he says. There are a couple of big issues to consider, such as staffing and kids’ health. For example, most schools rely on paraeducators to supervise children during lunch and recess; teachers have a duty-free period by contract.

That means there may not be enough staff to supervise kids who are dressed adequately and able to go outdoors and also to watch those who might have to stay inside because of health reasons or lack of a warm coat.

“As much as we’d like some kids to go outside and (some to) stay inside, we have staff issues,” Tofig says. “We have kids come to school who don’t have enough clothes to keep them warm. It’s one of those issues that sounds simple, but isn’t.”

He says those are some of the reasons that parents are unlikely to see the school board establish mandates beyond the existing rule that schools must have recess. “You want to get input, but you want to make sure that people understand” all aspects of an issue, Tofig says. “The realities of running a school system make what appears to be black and white more gray.”

Still, it’s the absolute subjectivity of the decision that rankles parents. I remember when our local elementary school was run by a principal originally from Florida. Seems like she canceled outdoor recess every time the wind blew.

Barbara Leister, veteran principal of Wyngate Elementary School in Bethesda, says she sends her students outside if the temperature measured by a rooftop thermometer is above 32 degrees. If the ground is wet or muddy, the school rotates the use of the hard surface playground between grades. For example, grades four and five might go out while grades two and three stay in. Kindergarten and first grade play on a different surface that they can use every day.

“The faculty and I believe it is a healthy practice to have children go outside for recess whenever possible!!!!,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Maybe it’s time to quit whining about the good old days.

As one parent noted on the Silver Spring list serve, “Believe you me, winter coat, hat and gloves or not, there were many days I and many of my classmates would’ve preferred staying inside over huddling near an entrance or a steam grate waiting to go back inside on days of 15 degree, 10 m.p.h. winds weather. These weren’t days of constant running around and playing flag football.

“And just because we all grew up in the 1970s and 1980s doing outdoor recess does not mean that this was good policy. In fact, it probably wasn’t and isn’t, as it masked the real problem of inadequate indoor facilities for physical exercise at many of our schools, for recess and in general.”

Not so simple, is it?

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