Hundreds of local parents are continuing an effort to get Mobile County Public Schools (MCPSS) and other districts across Alabama to adopt policies requiring daily recess breaks for children.

While some people may think of recess and physical education as synonymous, the group Alabama Families for Recess says that’s not the case. While physical education usually consists of structured games and exercises, recess — as defined by the group — is about free play.

“Physical education is not free play. When my child gets free time on the weekends, he is able to strengthen his friendships, build his social skills, coordination and focus,” Laurie Dungan, mother of a Council Traditional School student, told Lagniappe. “Kids spend all day following rules and working hard to do what they are instructed to do. For them to have that unstructured break to let loose and play is so important.”

Dungan helped organize Alabama Families for Recess, which started as a handful of mostly Council parents but has since grown to include parents from throughout MCPSS and in other school districts.

Currently, an online petition with more than 1,200 signatures is asking MCPSS Superintendent Chresal Threadgill to mandate that students in pre-K through fifth grade have “at least 20 consecutive minutes of supervised, safe and unstructured free-play recess” each school day.  However, the group’s push for mandatory recess in local schools is not unique and neither is the importance they’re placing on it.

Just last year, a group of parents in Florida successfully lobbied their local school system in Pinellas County and eventually the state Legislature to require all schools serving K-5 students to set aside 20 consecutive minutes for free-play recess every day.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) finds free play allows students to build a variety of skill sets important to their overall development. Earlier this month, the AAP journal Pediatrics published an article titled “The Power of Play,” which showed free-play recess promotes “social-emotional, cognitive, language and self-regulation skills” in children and helps develop “a prosocial brain.”

The same article notes that for children, “play and learning are inextricably linked,” adding “the accumulation of new knowledge is built on previous learning, but the acquisition of new skills is facilitated by social and often playful interactions.”

Lisa Roddy said she saw the benefits of recess firsthand while teaching preschool in the state of Texas. She claims the school grew “confident kids” who developed skills needed to “negotiate games and rules, handle conflicts and disappointments, imagine and entertain themselves and challenge their fears on the playground.”

“People often think that this is about physical fitness or fighting obesity. Although the physical part is an obvious and important benefit, it’s about so much more than that. It’s about social and emotional development, and it’s about human biology,” Roddy wrote via email. “Kids learn better when they have recess. Their brains look different after. They retain more. They are more able to stay focused and pay attention.”

Like some other parents who moved to Mobile from out of state, Roddy said she was surprised to learn “many kids” didn’t have to recess locally. That’s not say that all schools or even most in the Mobile public school system don’t ever offer free-play recess for elementary age children, as many do.

Currently, the principal at each local school decides when, or if, children are allowed to have recess outside of the state requirements that students have some form of physical education each school day. Threadgill said his administration is open to considering a countywide policy for recess, though.

“We are forming a committee to look at recess and to discuss what our options are districtwide,” Threadgill said earlier this week. “Right now, it’s at the principal’s discretion.”

However, parents in Alabama Families for Recess say, without a policy requiring principals to offer daily recess, it can often be withheld from students — either as a way of punishing bad behavior or making additional instructional time to ensure students are meeting the academic standards required by the state of Alabama.

Based on correspondence Alabama Families for Recess has received from Montgomery, the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) doesn’t seem interested in any kind of change at the state level, though.

“The Alabama State Department of Education encourages school systems to provide recess and breaks during the academic day. There are no plans at this time to develop a statewide policy,” Nancy M. Ray, physical education and health specialist with ALSDE, wrote to the group in October. “Each school system knows their schools’ needs and has the freedom to implement their own policy concerning recess.”

One of the early organizers of the group, Stephanie Jackson, said Alabama Families for Recess plans to keep pushing for some type of recess requirement and is hopeful they’ll receive more of a response from Threadgill’s administration than they did from his predecessor’s.

She said Threadgill has scheduled a meeting with the group for next month.

However, Jackson stressed that Alabama Families for Recess is mounting “a respectful pursuit (without malice) to engage in a dialogue intended to improve quality of life for students, teachers, administrators families, and, by default, the community at large.

“None of us are rabble-rousers. We appreciate the rich curriculum and instruction provided by our schools,” Jackson said. “We are only asking, as parents and stakeholders, to be engaged in a conversation about what is best for our school communities. We want to restore the research-based and common sense practice of daily recess.”