Washington state students in grades K-5 will be guaranteed at least 30 minutes of recess beginning in the 2024-2025 school year, thanks to a new law signed today by Gov. Jay Inslee on May 4.
The bill that led to the new law was approved by the Washington State Legislature in March.
Essential to child health
“Recess isn’t just a fun break from class, it’s an essential part of a child’s development,” said Sen. T’Wina Nobles (D-Fircrest), a champion of the law. “Science has shown us that it helps build vital social skills and problem-solving abilities, while also improving concentration and stress management. As educators, parents, and former kids ourselves, we know firsthand the benefits of recess. By ensuring every child has access to high-quality play, we can set them up for success in the classroom and beyond, while building a stronger and healthier community for generations to come.”
The new law is one of the strongest recess/physical activity laws in the country. It means that all Washington State elementary school students must receive a minimum of 30 minutes of recess on days longer than five hours. It defines recess as supervised and student-directed. The requires recess to be held outside whenever possible and it maintains that use of computers, tablets, or phones should be avoided.
A policy of encouragement
The law also directs the Washington State School Directors Association to create a model policy which encourages physical activity breaks for middle and high school, encourages schools to hold recess before lunch in elementary school, and prohibits the use of physical activity as punishment and discourages withholding recess for disciplinary or academic reasons. Once created, that policy must be adopted by local school boards.
“Educators have seen first-hand the effects on student learning when kids don’t have adequate time for movement and unstructured play,” said Larry Delaney, president of the Washington Education Association. “We also know that students of color are disproportionately impacted by schools’ inadequate time for recess. This bill is a balanced, thoughtful solution and WEA is proud to have helped get it done.”
No need to make days longer
Recess counts as instructional minutes in Washington state public schools, so additional recess time does not require lengthening the school day.
“Youth in our state are facing dual crises of physical inactivity and mental health challenges,” said Dr. Julie McCleery, with the King County Play Equity Coalition and Center for Leadership in Athletics at the University of Washington. “With this legislation, Washington state has the opportunity to be a national leader in addressing these crises. Ensuring equitable access to recess is a research-based, community-driven approach that will benefit students throughout our state.”
Benefits of recess
The components of the law were drafted to reflect national best practices on physical activity in schools and extensive research that demonstrates the benefits of sufficient daily recess, including:
- Lower cortisol levels and reduced stress/anxiety
- Better social skills and problem-solving
- Improved physical health
- Improved memory, attention, and concentration
- Improved time-on-task and reduced disruptive behavior while in the classroom
“Having equitable recess in all elementary schools gives children across our state, regardless of their family or community circumstances, daily opportunities to move their bodies, get outdoors, engage in child-directed play, and return to classrooms less stressed and more ready to learn,” said Dr. Pooja Tandon, pediatrician, and researcher at Seattle Children’s Hospital and an associate professor at the University of Washington.
According to recent research by the King County Play Equity Coalition, wide disparities exist between the amount of recess Washington State elementary school students receive. The survey of 580 elementary and middle school parents across 16 counties was conducted in 2022.
Findings from that survey include:
- 75 percent of parents believe their child does not receive enough recess.
- Amounts of elementary school recess ranged from fewer than 10 minutes to more than 50 minutes daily; 35 percent of elementary school students receive 30 minutes or less of daily recess, according to parents surveyed
- 41 percent of parents surveyed said their child’s school withholds recess; an additional 31 percent were unsure if the practice of withholding was happening at their school
- 72 percent of elementary school parents surveyed think students should have at least 40 minutes of recess
Few kids get enough active time
A report by the King County Play Equity Coalition in 2019—the State of Play Report—found that only 19 percent of youth in King County regularly receive 60 minutes of daily physical activity, which is below the national average. The Centers for Disease Control recommends 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily for youth ages 6-17. For many youths, school is the best or only place to receive physical activity.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Recess is a necessary break in the day for optimizing a child’s social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development. In essence, recess should be considered a child’s personal time, and it should not be withheld for academic or punitive reasons.
Mental decompression is part of recess
To be effective, the frequency and duration of breaks should be sufficient to allow the student to mentally decompress. Recess can serve as a counterbalance to sedentary time and contribute to the recommended 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per day, a standard strongly supported by AAP policy as a means to lessen the risk of being overweight.” Learn more at kcplayequity.org.
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