That age-old tradition of recess in Louisiana public schools is changing, and in some cases disappearing.
More than 1 in 5 schools give students from kindergarten to eighth grade less than 15 minutes per school day to burn off energy on the playground. And some schools have done away with daily recess entirely, according to an annual report by the state Department of Education.
The issue got so heated with parents in Jefferson Parish last year that the School Board took the unusual action of mandating at least 15 minutes per day for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
Critics say the pressure on public schools to meet instructional time demands has nudged aside recess, despite solid evidence that physical activity has academic benefits.
"Our kids are sitting too much in the classroom," said Bonnie Richardson, who lives in Baton Rouge and is president of a physical activity advocacy group that works with state officials.
Gary Jones, a veteran educator and president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said he hears comments about the squeeze on recess all the time.
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Jones, who lives in Alexandria, said the issue stems from academic demands on public schools.
"Over time, many districts have reduced the amount of recess time in elementary schools," he said.
Jones said physical education classes should not be seen as substitutes for recess.
"Kids needs unstructured time as well," Jones said. "It is a difficult situation for districts to deal with, but I do think it is a problem."
Louisiana is not the only state where recess reductions have sparked an outcry.
In fact, there has been enough pushback nationally against the reduction or elimination of recess for young students that the pendulum may be moving toward restoring more free time.
"I do think more research is coming out now that says we need to make sure that this is included in the day for students," said Debra Schum, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Principals.
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The issue has sparked scholarly papers by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which is a big proponent of the breaks. The group said daily school recesses nationally range from 20 to 60 minutes.
"In other countries, such as Japan, primary school-aged children have a 10- to 15-minute break every hour, and this is thought to reflect the fact that attention spans begin to wane after 40 to 50 minutes of intense instruction," according to the AAP.
State law requires that K-8 students have at least 30 minutes each school day for moderate to vigorous physical activity — often physical education class. However, the law does not spell out how that is to be done.
In addition, the lack of monitoring makes it unclear just how many schools meet the requirement.
The state survey of K-8 schools, which was done in February, showed that 70 percent reported 150 minutes or more of physical education per week. Those that failed to meet the standard cited tight school schedules, finances and lack of staff and facilities as the reasons.
The same survey showed that 60 schools — or 7 percent — offered no daily recess, and 119 — or 14 percent — offered one period of less than 15 minutes per day. Forty percent of kindergarten through eighth-grade schools that responded to the survey said they offer one recess of more than 15 minutes.
Over the past seven years, an average of 44 percent of schools statewide that take part in the survey said they provided at least one recess of 15 minutes or more per day, according to the state Department of Education.
Recess advocates say young students need at least 20 minutes daily to get out of the classroom and interact with peers.
"It helps the kids to go back and focus on things," said Richardson, who is president of the Louisiana Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.
"When you give them that break, the brain is revitalized," she said.
The issue also has sparked criticism that recess has been unfairly used as a disciplinary tool, with students, including those with disabilities, sometimes forced to sit in a classroom while their classmates head for the playground.
Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, said in an email that the "testing overdrive" sparked by Louisiana's accountability system likely contributes to the squeeze on recess time.
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Richard said school leaders are "focusing on ensuring every available minute of the day" is for quality instruction, leading some districts to eliminate recess.
House Education Committee Chairwoman Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, said reduced recess time is a cause for concern.
"Studies show that recess is really helpful to kids and helps them focus more when they are in the classroom, especially kids with ADHD," Landry said using the acronym for attention deficit/hyperactive disorder.
Landry's interest in recess dates back decades. As a middle school student in the 1970s, she led a sit-in when school officials announced recess would be trimmed by 10 minutes. The uprising allowed Landry and others to spell out their concerns to school leaders.
It also got the future lawmaker and her allies an in-school suspension.