Childhood Education Reform NCLB (No Child Left Behind) Play

Do Children Have a Right to Play?

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The title of this post may sound absurd. Of course, children should play; it need not be a “right,” as defined in law, but it should be common sense. Play is an essential part of childhood. Most of us remember the games we made up, the pots and pans that we turned into playthings, the music we created on our own. But children today have been denied the fundamental time needed for unstructured play at school. The enactment of No Child Left Behind in 2002 prioritized academic skills and caused many schools to eliminate recess as a “frill.”

Today, happily, there is a movement to bring back recess. Whereas schools used to provide recess once, or twice, or three times a day, it is now legislatures that are mandating recess. Crazy, no? When I attended Montrose Elementary School in Houston, we had recess twice a day, without benefit of a state law.

Today there are several states that mandate recess, which seems to be the only way to guarantee that it is provided.

Parent activists in Illinois just won a victory in the Illinois legislature, with the passage of a bill that requires 30 minutes of recess daily and guarantees that children cannot be punished by withholding recess.

In Texas, where the state legislature spends most of its time figuring out how to increase the number of charters and how to pass vouchers, some districts have taken the initiative to make play available.

Others have decided to rethink recess at the school or district level. A program called LiiNK—Let’s Inspire Innovation ’N Kids—in several Texas school districts sends kids outside for four 15-minute recess periods daily.

Debbie Rhea, a professor and associate dean at Texas Christian University, launched the initiative after seeing a similar practice in Finland. It reminded her of her own elementary school years.

“We have forgotten what childhood should be,” said Rhea, who was a physical education teacher before going into academia. “And if we remember back to before testing—which would be back in the ’60s, ’70s, early ’80s—if we remember back to that, children were allowed to be children.”

LiiNK was a big change for the Eagle Mountain Saginaw Independent School District, where schools saw their recess time quadruple after implementing the program four years ago.

“We’ve seen some amazing changes in our students,” said district LiiNK coordinator Candice Williams-Martin. “Their creative writing has improved. Their fine motor skills have improved, their [body mass index] has improved. Attention in the classroom has improved.”

Some educators claim that play increases test scores, but that’s a shaky foundation for supporting one of the most important building blocks of childhood. Everyone needs time to play, even adults.

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