There’s a pile up of students on the twisting slide of the Ortega Elementary School jungle gym, a traffic jam on the monkey bars and it’s bumper-to-bumper on the jungle gym drawbridge.
“Incoming!” yells one student as he rams into the pile of kids at the bottom of the slide.
For the next 30 minutes, these first-graders have nothing to do but play. As of last week, elementary students who attend Austin public schools are now required to receive 30 minutes of unstructured recess every day, on top of the 135 minutes of weekly structured playtime mandated by the state. In the past, students in many low-income schools received little to no playtime, as school administrators and teachers felt pressure to prepare students for standardized tests.
In East Austin, Ortega Elementary teachers say the school began implementing the 30 minutes of recess in November. The school rearranged its schedule to accommodate 30 minutes per grade. Other schools have chosen to split recess into 15-minute periods in the morning and afternoon.
Ortega Elementary School officials say, before the change, students received a short recess in which they ran laps around the track. Plus, many teachers integrate various active breaks throughout the day including yoga, stretching and online videos to get kids moving.
“As adults, if we were expected to sit for six hours, at the beginning we would be more present, we’d be much more attentive, but as the day goes on we’d be dwindling and for younger students that’s even more so,” says Jennifer Stephens, principal at Ortega Elementary School.
“They have a lot of energy and so it’s very, very important to be mindful of that at times…They need to be moving around,” says Katelyn Berndt, first grade teacher at Ortega. Since the school switched to 30-minute recess, Berndt says the kids seem happier. “They seem more engaged, they seem more focused. I mean, some days are better than others. Overall, it just really helps with their attitude and how they view being here.”
Plus, unstructured activity allows students to improve social skills and problem solve.
“Students are problem-solving within themselves,” says Laura Sanchez, assistant principal at Ortega. “So, this gives them the opportunity outside the classroom to problem solve.”
Elementary schools need to submit a report to the district by the end of the month that shows they are providing 30 minutes of recess. They’re required to submit schedules and recess blocks.
Principal Stephens says the 30 minute requirement offers students a protection.
“The school day gets very busy and it’s really easy to forget about that,” she says. “And I think, for all the students, it gives them a protection that they have these 30 minutes that they know they’ll be able to completely relax and just be kids and not have to be responsible for anything in that one moment.”
It also gives teachers a break, too.
“I like to go out and be in the fresh air and just observe them in their environment and not in a structured environment,” says Rosa Chavez, a first grade teacher. “They get to be themselves and I overhear conversations that are so cute, innocent, alarming and I get to know them a little bit better, just kind of being the shadow.”