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This Illinois school mandate isn’t controversial: 30 minutes of recess

Parents and advocates are cheering a new requirement that K-5 students get a half-hour of unstructured play time every day.

Celeste Hernandez, 8, a student at Franklin Fine Arts Center, performs cartwheels for the camera as her brother Juan Carlos, 10, also a student at Franklin Fine Arts Center, watches at Lake Shore Park in the Gold Coast neighborhood, Sept. 15, 2021.
Celeste Hernandez, 8, a student at Franklin Fine Arts Center, performs cartwheels for the camera as her brother Juan Carlos, 10, also a student at Franklin Fine Arts Center, watches at Lake Shore Park in the Gold Coast neighborhood, Sept. 15, 2021.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The return of full-time in-person learning after a year of trauma for school-aged kids has brought mental health support to the forefront of education discussions.

While parents and advocates continue to push for more social workers in schools, one method that school leaders hope could be used to address students’ social and emotional needs is recess.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill into law last month that requires all public schools in the state to provide 30 minutes of daily unstructured free time to K-5 students starting this school year. Advocates said the law, called “Right to Play,” is one of the strongest recess laws in the country.

“In the wake of a global pandemic, children’s need for social interaction, physical activity and time off screens is more important than ever,” said Cassie Cresswell, the chair of the Jones College Prep Local School Council, said in an email. She is director of the Illinois Families for Public Schools advocacy group, which pushed for the new law.

“Play is learning for kids, and that’s an area of learning loss that we haven’t been hearing about. This bill lets schools prioritize the benefits of play.”

State Rep. Aarón Ortíz, D-Chicago, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said “guaranteeing a right to play is an education equity issue.”

“No child in Illinois should go through elementary school without recess, and we know the kids most likely to not have recess at all or have it withheld are children of color and those from low-income households,” he said.

The law, effective last month, ensures recess can’t be taken away from students as a disciplinary measure, and a physical education class won’t fulfill the requirement. Electronic devices can’t be used during that time, either, meaning schools can’t simply put kids in a computer lab or play a movie. Schools can break the time into two 15-minute periods, and it can be outdoors or indoors.

Celeste Hernandez, 8, a student at Franklin Fine Arts Center, slides down a slide at Lake Shore Park Playground in the Gold Coast neighborhood, Sept. 15, 2021.
Celeste Hernandez, 8, a student at Franklin Fine Arts Center, slides down a slide at Lake Shore Park Playground in the Gold Coast neighborhood, Sept. 15, 2021.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Leo Hernandez said his 3rd grade daughter and 5th grade son benefit from their play time at Franklin Fine Arts Center in Old Town.

CPS already required its schools to give their students 20 minutes of daily recess, recommending it be scheduled before lunch. In Hernandez’s view, the additional 10 minutes is welcome news.

“Sometimes they get stuck in front of the white boards. It’s very important for them to decompress and have some freedom and not have to worry about schoolwork at all times,” Hernandez said.

“It’s helpful that they understand that it’s not always just about what they’re learning or what the answers are for this problem or that problem. It can be, ‘Hey, I just finished this subject, now let me have some time to myself.’ Maybe they don’t even want to play with other kids. Maybe they just want to go on their own and walk around, do whatever’s comfortable for them.”

Hernandez said his daughter Celeste told him this week that she and a couple friends have been meeting up at recess every day to practice their cartwheels and dismounting off the playground monkey bars.

“She talks about how they enjoy that and she and her two friends practice that every day,” he said. “So it’s truly empowering to them. For her, knowing that she has that free time, school is already chaotic as it is, it gets them fresh air.”

Franklin Fine Arts Center students Celeste Hernandez, 8, and her brother Juan Carlos, 10, pose for a picture at Lake Shore Park in the Gold Coast neighborhood, Sept. 15, 2021.
Franklin Fine Arts Center students Celeste Hernandez, 8, and her brother Juan Carlos, 10, pose for a picture at Lake Shore Park in the Gold Coast neighborhood, Sept. 15, 2021.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Parents are still worried the law won’t be consistently applied at different schools. Some schools already have had trouble giving kids their required 20 minutes because of a lack of space or simply not prioritizing recess.

CPS officials included information about the new law in lengthy back-to-school guidance to principals ahead of the new school year but haven’t particularly emphasized the new rules. The district told administrators to build those extra 10 minutes into their schedules if possible this year, then ensure they were added next school year.

Principals said the added time hasn’t been prioritized because they’ve been focusing on safely reopening their buildings during the pandemic. Adjusting schedules when the school year has already started could also be a challenge.

A governor’s office spokeswoman didn’t answer whether districts would be reprimanded for not guaranteeing 30 minutes this school year.