Recess in Seattle: How We Won the Right to Play

RBy Jesse Hagopian — Originally Published by The Progressive

Photos by Sarah Lang

It was May of 2014. I had just picked up my son from his wonderful play-based preschool, and, as we headed home, I turned on the radio. Usually, my son would demand that I “turn off the boring news” and put on his favorite break beats for the ride home—and usually he’d get his way. But this time, a story in a series called “No Time for Play” by public radio education reporter Anne Dornfeld grabbed my son’s attention when he heard her start talking about a study showing recess times in Seattle Public Schools were shrinking.

We learned that when the study began four years earlier, only one Seattle school reported an average recess time of 20 minutes or less per day. During the 2013-2014 school year, some 11 schools offered such paltry recess (and it’s only gotten worse since then). Anne’s story pointed out that the schools with the least amount of recess had high concentrations of students of color and low-income students.

Because my son’s preschool educated me about the incredible value of play in childhood development, this news distressed me in the same way a kid feels when he is held in from recess on a sunny day. Also, with my son entering kindergarten in the Seattle Public Schools the next fall, I knew I had to do something about it.

I began by doing a survey of the research on the benefits of recess for childhood development, and it was definitive. Among many benefits, free play is critical to children developing skills I believe are the most important for young children to develop: cooperating, sharing, and solving problems.

Then I looked at trends in recess time around the country. What I discovered was similar to the experience of watching a kid pull back an Elmo Band-aid to reveal a festering skinned knee from falling on the asphalt. Seattle was following a national trend in reducing recess time in primary grades as school districts bend to federal mandates to raise test scores.

I had been organizing for some time against destructive high-stakes standardized testing and the policies of the No Child Left Behind act, Race to the Top, and the Common Core standards that have been used to promote test-and-punish schooling. But my activism took on new meaning when I discovered that, according to the American Association for the Child’s Right to Play, as many as 40 percent of school districts in the United States have reduced recess since the implementation of No Child Left Behind act.

I used this research to inform a resolution I brought to my union, the Seattle Education Association (SEA), calling on our union to form a joint task force with the Seattle Public Schools to work on expanding recess across the district. The motion passed overwhelmingly. Even though there was never any follow through—the task force never happened—raising the issue in the union helped to raise awareness of the issue.

Next, I wrote an op-ed that was published in the Seattle Times that outlined the disappearance of recess in Seattle, summarized the research on the benefits of free play, and publicized the educators’ vote in support of expanded recess. I concluded with:

Controlled experiments by researchers Catherine Bohn-Gettler and Anthony Pellegrini show that recess improves children’s attention to academic tasks. Moreover, recess is a critical factor in a student’s social and emotional well-being. Recess facilitates children’s social development by allowing for cooperation and conflict resolution during unstructured free play, critical for helping children develop the necessary qualities for strong friendships….As another school year gets under way, remember the words of Albert Einstein: ‘Play is the highest form of research.’ My 5-year-old is set to begin a grand research endeavor.

Let our kids play.”

What happened in the next few days was as joyous as a spontaneous game of leapfrog on the playground. When Whittier Elementary School announced plans to reduce the combined lunch and recess time from 40 minutes to 30, parents and students there set a new social movement in motion when they voiced their objection. Their protest gained important media attention.

“My younger elementary student was coming home cranky with an uneaten lunch. So I looked into her schedule and it was 15 minutes to eat, followed by 15 minutes recess,” Whittier parent Sarah Lang told me later. “This was shocking for me, a child of the ’70s in Europe. I had always used the term ‘lunch hour’ and presumed that was standard. Parents drop their kids off at school trusting that they will be cared for, that they will have their basic human needs met with time to eat and play, but this was not the case and we were completely unaware.”

Then Jana Robins, a mom at Leshi Elementary School, began a petition for more recess time, which quickly garnered hundreds of signatures from parents across Seattle. Jana wrote about her decision to launch this petition:

“The ‘No Time to Play’ news story highlighted the huge inequity of recess time across the school district, with schools of highest need having the least amount of recess. Jesse Hagopian published an op-ed in the Seattle Times also decrying the recess inadequacies and inequities. Quickly it became clear that this was a district led problem that needed a district led solution. Bolstered by the similar sentiments of other Seattle Public School families, and the clear evidence of child experts touting the benefits of outdoor recess, we decided to give voice to all the students, parents, teachers, and medical professionals by launching the Save Seattle Recess petition calling for a district-wide recess policy.”

Next, Whittier parent Deb Escher hosted a meeting of parents from both ends of the city to launch a new organization, Lunch and Recess Matter. We all discussed how to best organize to make ample time to eat and play a reality in the Seattle Public Schools. With our new organization formed, parents got right to work defending play.

Parents’ research discovered that Seattle Public Schools policy H61.01 states, “Meal periods shall be long enough for students to eat and socialize—a minimum of 20 minutes to eat lunch with additional time as appropriate for standing in line.”  This was a vindication of the assertion parents made that students at the end of long lunch lines—the longest in schools with a high percentage of free and reduced lunch—weren’t getting enough time to eat.

Parents also discovered there were no policies protecting recess. Parents demanded meetings with district officials to question why there wasn’t a policy, and it became clear recess was not valued on its own merits—seen as just extra time, perhaps partly to give teachers their required 30 minutes of lunch.

The research team also discovered that the neighboring school district of Tacoma did have a recess policy in place, which gave everyone confidence that it was not impossible to achieve.

Parents began contacting local community organizations and building awareness through social media. The also started a Lunch and Recess Matter Facebook page which quickly garnered thousands of members.

Then, the parent, student, and teacher organizing game climbed to new heights. We planned our first rally for lunch and recess at the November 5, 2014 school board meeting. TV cameras rolled and the press clicked off photos of young kids and their parents in the lobby of the Seattle school district headquarters waving green sings that read, “Let them play!” “Let them eat!” and “Equal lunch.”

One young redheaded boy, whose green poster board had an adorable smile scrawled on it, held up the message, “I don’t have time to chew.”  One upper elementary girl had a green heart painted on her check, and the sign in her hand read, “We heart Recess.”  The pure elation of these kids protest-playing made for the happiest demonstration I have ever been to.

When the school board meeting was gaveled in, the parent and student testimony was explosive.

One parent reveled that an audit conducted by parents in the Lunch and Recess Matter group over the last couple of weeks found some 50 schools in Seattle did not adhere to their own policy requiring a minimum of 20 min of time to eat. One Parent described how, at one school, students at the back of the lunch line had only five minuets to scarf their food before the bell rang.

I began my remarks to the board by quoting Fred Rogers (or Mr. Rogers, as he was popularly known on his TV show) who said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” And I went on to explain how the reduction of recess is correlated to the pressures of high-stakes testing that have come to dominate education.

A student from a south end elementary school talked about recess, the wiggles, and how much fun it is to play. Another parent delivered over 1,600 signatures that were collected (at the time) on the Save Recess petition.

The most powerful testimony came from a parent who was an African immigrant. He gave a first hand account of what it feels like to be starving and told the school board it was unacceptable that his son didn’t receive enough time to eat and is then asked to throw away his food. He relayed to the board that he told his son that he was not allowed to throw the food away and a teacher would have to do it for him. He demanded that the school district allow his son the time he needed not to waste food.

That winter, the organizing effort continued. Students at one school organized their own petition and got all the kids to sign it. Parents continued to demand answers from district officials, to organize, and to conduct research.

All of that pressure resulted in the Head of Nutrition Services for Seattle public schools to ask a cohort of University of Washington Nutritional Sciences Masters Students to study plate waste and nutritious food consumption as it relates to the amount of time to eat at eight schools with high reduced lunch populations in Seattle.

“Their findings were what you would expect,” Robbins told me. “Schools with the longest amounts of ‘seated’ time to eat had the highest consumption of healthy foods, and the least amount of plate waste.”  Schools with recess before lunch also had healthier food consumption and less waste. These observations also supported our claims that students do not get nearly 20 minutes to eat lunch. One of the schools they observed had as little as 7 minutes seated time to eat. The average time across the 8 schools was 13 minutes.

With much more evidence and support, the Lunch and Recess Matter group organized another protest in March of 2015 to keep the pressure on the district. This time that joyous feeling from the first meeting was replaced with the hardened determination of a kid staring down a bully. Parents were now exasperated with a school district that had shown it was willing to disregard its own lunchtime requirement and talked in vague generalities about the “possibility” of adopting a recess policy—in three years or so.

The end of last school year concluded with many of the parents in Lunch and Recess Matter dispirited. Parents had expected that once they showed the school district how they were violating their own policies and proposed solutions, the district would find ways to remedy the situation. Instead parents felt stymied. Intentionally.

Then over the summer, the Seattle Education Association revealed a ground breaking set of demands it was pushing for in contract negotiations with the district that included forming race and equity teams in every school, reducing the use of high-stakes standardized testing, and…a demand of 45 minutes recess in every elementary school.

The school district waited until late August to reply to these proposals and then rejected each without comment. With only a few days before school was supposed to start, a strike looked imminent. The SEA organized a general membership meeting of all the educators in Seattle where they voted unanimously to authorize a strike should the school district not capitulate.

And then it happened.

On Saturday, September 5, the union’s negotiating team announced that the school district had backed down and agreed to a minimum of 30 minutes of recess in every elementary school.  It was “sleepless in Seattle” for many of us who celebrated “recess Seattle” that evening.

While the district’s concession wasn’t the 45 minutes the union had demanded, and is short of what students deserve, and not in compliance with state law, it was clearly a victory for the relentless organizing done by parents, students, and teachers during the prior year.

As elementary school teacher and SEA bargaining team member Michael Tamayo told me, “The most important action was for people out in the community to work with our union to craft enforceable contract language and to keep the issue in the public’s eye.”

Because the school district didn’t back down on the rest of SEA’s demands, the union did organize its 5,000 members on a weeklong strike that gained massive community support and won a groundbreaking contract. Thousands of parents joined in solidarity with the teachers, including the celebrated Soup for Teachers group that brought sustenance and solidarity to picket lines at every school in the district. Student marching bands used their pep-band anthems to cheer on striking educators, and local businesses donated to the picket lines.

In the end, the unity of parents and educators won a contract that included race and equity teams in 30 schools, an end to the use of standardized test scores in teacher evaluations, a cap on the amount of students for school psychologists and other Education Support Associates—and, of course, the precious 30 minutes of recess.

We are still fighting for a policy to make recess happen before lunch so that there isn’t the pressure to eat too fast to squeeze in a few minutes of recess. We are still fighting for an adequate amount of lunchtime. And we know our kids could use even more recess. A recent follow-up story by reporter Dornfeld found that in the early 1960s, Seattle Public schools offered as much as 95 minutes of lunch and recess time. So, in many ways, our movement has just begun.

To be sure, we achieved a real victory, but not one exclusively found in the sub-clauses of the contract. When the school year finally started after the five-day strike delay, my son began the first grade. Of course I asked him that first day back how recess went. He told me that on the playground he had tried to learn how to walk on top of a giant ball, like some of the older kids on the school acrobatic team. He told me the big kids were helping him, but he wasn’t going to be able to learn how to ball walk this year because, “It’s just too scary.”

Last week when I got home, my son came running to the door yelling, “I walked on top of the ball today Daddy, I wasn’t scared!”

The real victory was in all of us—children and adults alike—learning about the power of collaboration in creating confidence. That kind of collective confidence can lead to breakthroughs on the playground and in education policy.

Jesse Hagopian is Seattle Fellow of the Progressive Education Fellows

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