Angela Browning is not a politician.
She’s a paralegal and the mom of three boys in elementary school in Florida’s Orange County school district. When I asked her for her title, she told me to call her a “recess mom.”
Browning is a leader in a movement made up of moms who want their kids to have 20 minutes of unstructured time to play during the school day. Now there are groups of recess moms in a little over a third of Florida’s 67 counties.
Browning said this all began last fall when she and a friend were talking about how their kids don’t always get recess at school. They started a petition to ask their local school board to mandate it. But, she says, that didn’t go anywhere. And, after being told there wasn’t time for daily recess given the growing demands on schools to raise test scores, she decided to take the issue to the state legislature.
Now she writes and calls lawmakers frequently and makes the more than 250-mile trip to the state capitol every week to drum up support for mandatory recess for elementary students.
So far, the legislation she helped to write has unanimously passed two state House subcommittees. But it’s gone nowhere in the state Senate. Both chambers have a Republican majority.
According to the Education Commission of the States, only three states require recess for elementary students: Connecticut, Missouri, and Virginia. Indiana requires “daily physical activity” that “may include recess.” And, New Jersey lawmakers recently passed legislation requiring recess for elementary students, but Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, vetoed it.
Browning granted us a phone interview Wednesday afternoon to talk about her efforts. Here’s a lightly edited version of our conversation:
Education Week: Why do you think it’s so important for kids to have 20 minutes of recess every day?
Browning: Recess is a critical part of the day, and it is a research-based part of the day. This is a time in the day where children truly get a break from the rigor and the curriculum of the classroom. Its value is in the lack of structure. It is that child’s only period of the school day where they get to make their own choices and their own decisions. It’s really important to remember that this isn’t just about running around on a playground and being silly. Children learn through play. It is developmentally appropriate for children to play. During the school day when they interact with their peers at recess, that’s where they learn social skills and leadership skills and where they cultivate those relationship-building skills that are so incredibly important as our children grow up.
Education Week: As you know schools are under more pressure to meet academic benchmarks. Some say a state recess mandate will take away valuable learning time. What are your thoughts on that?
Browning: They need to read the research. There are very few subjects on which all of the experts agree, and recess is one of them. Every expert that has studied the subject of recess has found that when children get a break in the day, academics improve because a child needs a break from instruction so that they can come back to the class and focus better. Studies show that they are better able to retain information when they get an unstructured break. So, of course, the focus is on academics in the school day, but this break improves academics. It improves test scores. It really is extremely counterproductive to deny these kids a break because you’re just tiring them out.
Education Week: Florida law already mandates that students in elementary school get 150 minutes of PE a week. Why do you think these students also need recess?
Browning: PE is incredibly important, and it needs to be a part of our children’s school day. But it is a class. It is structured. It is led by a certified teacher. There are lesson plans associated with PE. Children are required to follow directions, sit still, pay attention. There are Florida Standards attached to that class. Our teachers are held accountable in that class for their students to show learning gains. So PE is not a break. It’s akin to us telling an adult in the workplace, ‘it’s time to take your break now, go run laps out in the parking lot.’
Education Week: This legislation would also prohibit schools from taking away recess as a form of punishment. In many districts taking away recess has been a longstanding tool of discipline. Why are you against that?
Browning: All of the research says specifically that recess should not be withheld from children for academic or punitive reasons because we don’t use something that is an absolutely critical part of the day and a crucial part of their development as a discipline tool anymore than we would take away a child’s lunch period because they were misbehaving. A child needs to eat, and this child needs a break. Without question, that is the number one complaint that we hear from parents. My child lost their recess today because they were talking in class or they were fidgeting in class or someone else was fidgeting, so the whole class lost recess. Part one of that problem is it’s generally the children who are chatty in class or can’t sit still who need that break the most.
Photo of Angela Browning, Courtesy Angela Browning
A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.