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Massachusetts middle school brings back recess so even older kids can play

Even older kids need the break, say parents and school officials.
/ Source: TODAY

Before he became superintendent of Medway Public Schools in Medway, Massachusetts, Dr. Armand Pires was a middle school principal. He's very familiar with the special challenges and needs of that age group, he told TODAY Parents — and he is proud that this year, Medway Middle School added recess into the school day schedule.

In Medway, middle school encompasses fifth through eighth grades. As a result, before this year, students as young as 10 years old no longer had any recess. When school started last week, however, fifth graders began receiving 20 minutes of recess a day, sixth graders 15 minutes a day, and seventh and eighth graders 10 minutes a day. The recess time is added on to the students' regular lunch time; when the they finish eating, they are able to take a break to decompress before heading back to class.

The decision to give Medway's middle school students a recess was years in the making. In 2015, Pires initiated a strategic planning process in the community to focus on what the schools were doing well and where they could improve. One issue that came up in that discussion concerned recess: In elementary school, parents felt Medway students didn't have enough recess time, and in middle school, they didn't have any at all.

By February of 2016, Medway schools decided to give elementary students a longer recess, from 15 minutes per day to 25 — a fairly significant change, Pires noted. But the community discussion continued about what to do for middle school students.

Pires decided to form his own task force to study the idea of recess for middle school students "carefully and deliberately." The committee included Medway Public Schools' Director of Wellness, Ryan Sherman, as well as parents, faculty members, and school officials.

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After 10 months of researching how recess affects middle schools students specifically, analyzing how neighboring communities handled middle school, and taking surveys of parents, the committee made an official recommendation in December of 2017 that Medway implement recess in middle school. Pires took the recommendation to the Medway Middle School faculty, who worked with him to decide how best that would work.

"The teachers made this an incredibly collaborative process," said Pires. "They were in full support of getting our middle school students to engage in recess."

The faculty and staff of Medway Middle School expect that the additional unstructured time will mean "an uptick in behaviors that don't conform to our core values or our beliefs for how students should interact with each other," but they are prepared, Pires said. "We are committed to managing those challenges effectively."

He believes the benefits of recess for his school district's middle school students will be worth it. "I started in education just over 20 years ago now, and I think that the children that are coming to us in 2018 have very, very few opportunities to engage in unstructured play — or any unstructured activities, really — with their peers," he said.

"So while there may be some challenges with regard to the management of student behavior in this particular setting, we think it is an issue we need to take on so we can provide our students with some important unstructured time."

What he and the middle school officials hope recess will do is relieve some of the pressure, stress and anxiety they are seeing in their students, he said. "I think we have a mental health crisis among our adolescents right now, and we've done a lot of work in our district to add additional service providers and mental health clinicians to our framework," he noted.

"Recess provides us an opportunity to do something in the middle of the school day to give our kids a break, so they can feel less stress and pressure and not like they have to conform to some standardized expectations," he said. While they also hope that the break in the middle of the day will lead to enhanced student performance in the second half of the school day, Pires said social and emotional benefits are the primary goal of the change.

Parenting and child development expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa said that the addition of recess to the middle school day is a great start for creating healthier students — and healthier adults, too. "If we want adults who understand work-life balance and have even the possibility of incorporating exercise and 'movement' breaks for healthier lives, we have to build those habits throughout our kids' education," she told TODAY Parents.

Rachael Pavlik, mother of a 12-year-old seventh grader near Houston, Texas, said she wishes that her child could have this kind of recess too. "I do wish they had 10 or 15 minutes after lunch to digest and catch up with friends," she said, noting that her daughter Camille hasn't had a recess for two years. "The lunch lines are long, so time to eat is ridiculously short."