Shaughn Dugan column: Elementary students need more recess time | Columnists

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By Shaughn Dugan

The students are in trouble. We can all see it. As a teacher last year, I saw it in the outbursts – the way my seventh graders struggled to sit still, the extra time we had to spend on fundamentals.

I saw it in the eyes of their parents during conferences held via Zoom. They were worried about their normally bubbly, smiling children.

These children have missed so much over the past two and a half years. They missed birthdays, bar mitzvahs, quinceaneras and family reunions. They suffer.

Their parents are tired after more than two years of calculations: Is it safe? Are we doing the right thing? Will our children be okay?

A recent New York Times article drove this home. Of 362 counselors surveyed in public schools, 94% said they saw more signs of depression and anxiety in their children. Eighty-eight percent said their students had trouble regulating their emotions.

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If you’re a teacher – if you’ve worked in schools like mine for the past two years – you’re not shocked. You know. You’ve seen this since you sent your students home and said, “Don’t worry. It’ll be OK. We’ll see you next week.

“Anxiety is invading our children right now,” said an elementary school counselor from Colorado. “They worry about their family and friends. They are stressed because they are late for school. The weight of everything has left and continues to leave its mark on our most vulnerable students.

Think back to the early days of the pandemic. How did you handle the weight of it all? Many of us have sought relief by being outdoors. We were told it was safer.

But many of us have found that it also made us happier. We were calmer. We just felt better. We went to the park with our families. We chatted happily with our friends and neighbors on their porches and in their yards.

According to the American Psychological Association, “exposure to nature has been linked to a host of benefits. Among them are “better attention, less stress, improved mood…and even increases in empathy and cooperation.” We spent time outdoors with friends and found our spirits lifted a bit.

Our students are suffering and they deserve all the power and support from their schools, their community and the Commonwealth. But teachers and students are unlikely to get what they deserve this year.

We need more counselors for our struggling students. We need more educators to provide better teacher-student ratios. We need to help students who were ahead in their studies but have now fallen behind after two and a half years of lingering trauma and interrupted learning.

All of this comes under increasing pressure to make up for a backlog in academics resulting from online schooling and the pandemic. There is an unchanging drumbeat to “keep calm and carry on” as if everything was and had been normal. And yes, the concern about academics is justified.

Our children and students have lost valuable face-to-face learning, and we must do all we can to make up for it. But going full steam ahead without adequate attempts to heal the emotional wounds of our students is short-sighted.

What small actions can we take to help? We can push Virginia school districts and their administrations to fully embrace the benefits of House Bill 1419.

Adopted in 2018 by the General Assembly, this legislation allows up to 15% of the 5.5 hours of compulsory instruction in elementary school to be used for recess. This equates to approximately 50 extra minutes of physical activity.

This change, however, was made to the state mandated minimums. School divisions have yet to adopt these changes to their bylaws. In the Richmond area, this is not yet the case, with elementary students currently only having 30 minutes a day for recess.

It’s understandable that people worry about wasting learning time in class while teachers struggle to get their students back to where they should be. But recess and unstructured play have many benefits.

The APA reports that “you can improve your mood by walking in nature, even in urban nature.” Research cited by the More Recess for Virginians campaign shows that “physically active children are more attentive and have faster cognitive abilities.”

More unstructured play time can also increase the likelihood of performing better on tests. A 2009 pediatric study of 11,000 third-graders found this when a district in Texas expanded playtime. A 2019 thesis from Arkansas Tech University also found this trend in math scores for third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade students after state lawmakers passed a bill to increase recess time.

Students, like the rest of us, need to get away from intense concentration. This can cause them to feel more refreshed and focus better. It can also help them remember lessons in class.

Twenty more minutes of recreation, that’s not all. It will not be a panacea. But it can help create little sunny moments that make our educators and students feel a little better. After everything this pandemic has thrown at us all, don’t we deserve this?

Shaughn Dugan is a graduate student at William & Mary School of Education. Contact him at: [email protected]

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