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A New School Subject: Fun

Fewer kids are spending time at play or get the chance to let loose at school - but a group from UConn hopes to change that.

June 10, 2007
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer

The kids at Hartford's Batchelder School took a brief break from reading and math last week for a lesson in what a team of University of Connecticut educators says is becoming a lost art - how to play.

Racing wildly across the school gymnasium in a noisy, loosely organized game of tag, the children could hardly miss the lesson's main point.

"Fun," said fifth-grader Arlene Torres, 11, one of dozens of students who joined the boisterous game led by a group of UConn students and professors.

Experts worry that children have less time for fun as schools squeeze out recess to focus on academics, safety-conscious parents keep kids indoors and flashy video games compete for their attention. Some children, even when given unstructured time to play, don't know how to use it, educators say.

"They just don't have the repertoire [of games] we had when we were children - not tag, not kick the can," said Jaci VanHeest, an associate professor of kinesiology at UConn who was at Batchelder for a ceremony marking the renovation of a playground. A rainstorm drove the ceremony indoors.

VanHeest is an adviser to four UConn students, all prospective teachers, who devised the Batchelder project, called "Recess Renovation: Teaching Students to Play."

The four students spent several months at Batchelder, where children get only a brief daily recess - about 15 minutes after lunch for those through Grade 3 and slightly less time for older students.

"Whenever they were outside," said Brian McDermott, a UConn junior, "there would be kids arguing or sitting alone. They didn't know what to do with the time. They were a little bit lost."

Across the nation, anywhere from one-fifth to one-third of children in grades 1 through 6 get either no recess or 15 minutes or less of recess a day, according to a 2005 report by the U.S. Department of Education.

"If you're looking at the lives of children in 2007, you're talking about children whose lives need a Blackberry to handle it," said VanHeest, an expert on childhood obesity and exercise. "Computers or video games are where they have the ability to be creative."

In Hartford schools, the amount of recess differs from one school to another but has diminished in recent years, said Cathy Carpino, president of the Hartford Federation of Teachers.

Many children who start kindergarten or first grade "have never learned how to play, never learned how to share," she said. "Couple that with not having recess, there's no place for kids to let off steam any more."

Connecticut is one of 10 states that recommend that schools offer recess. Only three states - Illinois, Louisiana and Missouri - require it, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Recess used to be three times a day. ... You had a full hour at lunch," said Rhonda Clements, a professor of education at Manhattanville College who worked on a 1999 survey that found many schools across the U.S. had begun reducing time for recess. Now, she said, recess "has gone down to only lunch time ... about 30 minutes long - and you have to eat and play."

Aside from the physical benefits of active play, researchers say that unstructured recess teaches children about social relationships and helps build the ability to negotiate and work together. In one study two years ago by the California Department of Education, researchers found a strong link between physical fitness and academic achievement.

Kenneth R. Ginsburg, a Philadelphia pediatrician, writing in the January issue of the journal Pediatrics, said play or free time "is essential to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth." But the time for play has been markedly reduced, he added, citing concerns about safety outside the home, efforts by parents to enroll children in highly structured after-school and weekend activities, and the increased focus by schools on academics under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Richard Schwab, dean of UConn's Neag School of Education, said, "There isn't a lot of time left for just plain fun."

Schwab, along with VanHeest, the UConn students and Batchelder Principal John Laverty, joined in the game of tag, held in the gym because a heavy downpour washed out plans to try out the new playground.

The playground includes brightly painted areas designated for activities such as baseball, kickball and hopscotch. The renovation, along with fundraising for playground balls and other new equipment, was led by McDermott, of Middlebury, and fellow UConn juniors Annie Haylon of West Hartford, Thomas Mariani of Somers and Ryan Quinn of Stonington.

The UConn students also gave Batchelder copies of "The Ultimate Recess Guide," a guide they compiled containing playground games, jump rope songs and other activities.

Laverty said children need some free time during the school day.

"It's a good idea to have a change of pace, get up and move around a little bit," he said, still sweating moments after the game of tag.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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