ASD60, a coalition of parents and community members from across the Anchorage School District, is advocating for the following:
- no less than thirty minutes (each) for recess and lunch at every elementary school;
- an ASD requirement that schools schedule recess before lunch;
- a district-wide mandate that protects students from being denied recess to implement additional instruction or as a disciplinary measure.
Overview of the current situation
There are more than 23,000 elementary students in the Anchorage School District, and they attend school for 390 minutes per day.
This fall, ASD mandated that all elementary schools provide at least 45 minutes for a combined recess and lunch block. This standardized the time available for eating and play. While most ASD schools now adhere to this minimum, many of the district’s highest-performing schools actually provide fifty, sixty or even sixty-five minutes for recess and lunch. However, not everyone attends a school or program of choice. For the majority of students, parents and teachers recognize that 1) this period still does not provide adequate time for all children to eat, and 2) that children’s developing brains require additional time for unstructured play.
Although many schools nationwide have curtailed time for recess and lunch in favor of more classroom time, schools that have increased the time for these crucial parts of children’s days have seen improvements in academic performance and decreases in behavior issues.
ASD60 believes that the Anchorage School District can amplify student learning by adopting evidence-based practices that will improve nutrition and expand time for the brain development that arises through movement and play. This will require an additional 15 minutes out of the existing 390 minute day and an explicit statement authorizing all elementary teachers to incorporate breaks for their students as developmentally needed.
ASD60 is deeply concerned about the time allotted for lunch and its ordering in relation to recess. Alaska’s Gold Standard Wellness Policy, the CDC, the USDA, the California’s Department of Education, the University of Washington and many other organizations all advocate for children to have a minimum of twenty minutes of eating time after being seated.
In addition, providing recess before lunch improves student nutrition by increasing total calories consumed, increasing fruit and vegetable consumption by 54%, increasing the consumption of milk, fruits, vegetables, calcium, and fiber, and decreasing waste. The increase in time dedicated to nutrition and the ordering of the recess/lunch block also improves classroom behavior after lunch and makes children more ready to learn.
ASD’s existing lunch framework provides inadequate time for all students to finish their lunches and most negatively hurts students who rely on free or reduced meals and must wait in long lines within the current twenty minute allotment to be served. More than 50% of ASD elementary students are economically disadvantaged, meaning that they qualify to receive free or reduced lunches. At some schools, this means that potentially every child waits in line to be served. The current mandate does not permit twenty minutes for every child to eat after being seated because it takes a substantial amount of time for children to 1) remove winter layers and 2) to wait in line to be served. It is a travesty that ASD’s food insecure children, for whom lunch calories may matter the most, have the least amount of time to eat.
ASD60 respectfully asks that the Anchorage School District ensures that all elementary school students have thirty minutes to eat lunch. This will provide better nutritional parity across the district and enable all students, some of whom may be too hungry to learn, to focus on their academics.
Recess and play
There is a tremendous body of evidence pointing to the value of movement and play in a child’s day, especially that found in recess. A 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, noted 251 associations between physical activity and academic performance. Other studies have provided clear links between physically active play and cognition, and between physical fitness and academic achievement. In 2013, the American Academy of Pediatrics demonstrated that recess, as something separate from the structured activities found in PE, offers distinctive benefits found nowhere else in a child’s day. After recess, the AAP argued, “students are more attentive and better able to perform cognitively.” To minimize or eliminate recess, the AAP surmised, may be counterproductive to academic achievement. At a larger level, students benefit from recess-based opportunities to develop social skills, manage stress, and fight childhood obesity. Additional recess time will also help ASD meet Alaska’s 2016 Physical Activities in Schools Law (Alaska State Statute AS14.30.360), which encourages all Alaska school districts to find ways to get kids moving for 54 minutes within the school day (54 minutes is 90% of the Centers for Disease Control’s daily minimum recommendation of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity).
Restricting recess on the basis of extending the instructional day, to complete homework, or for disciplinary measures fails the students who most need it. The AAP argues that “recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development” and “should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons.” ASD60 supports alternative responses to disciplinary problems, like restricting particular choices or areas in which a child in need of discipline or boundaries might safely play, in lieu of withholding recess itself.
ASD60 also supports the purposeful expansion of unstructured play time within the existing day. In 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a compelling study showing that unstructured play time “enhances brain structure and function and promotes executive function.” Play, the AAP articulates, also increases empathy, brings children together such that they can learn from one another’s diverse backgrounds, promotes agency within the child, and improves problem-solving abilities. Ample research shows that play is directly linked to brain and language development, (especially for at-risk students), that access to play is a question of social justice, and that all Kindergarteners benefit from additional periods of unstructured play during classroom time.
Given the preponderance of evidence regarding the value of recess and play as enablers of learning, ASD60 recognizes that the district has the ability to become a nationwide leader in re-integrating time for additional movement within the school day, while at the same time reaching its curricular goals.
As a coalition of education advocates interested in readying all students for academic success, ASD60 is respectfully asking for thirty guaranteed minutes of recess and supports teachers’ demands to reintegrate play and brain breaks within classrooms as they see fit.
ASD’s new curricular scheduling
The largest obstacle to enacting a more evidence-based stance toward scheduling more time for better nutrition and additional movement in students’ days has to do with ASD’s new literacy program. While there is scholarly consensus on the utility of one 90 minute block of literacy instruction, ASD nearly doubled the total time dedicated to literacy this year. In this block, teachers deliver minute-by-minute overlays for the reading curriculum alongside additional periods of instruction for students performing below grade-level benchmarks. These elements form the “90-40-40” structure, where teachers are instructed to deliver nearly three hours of uninterrupted literacy instruction to all students. Fidelity to this schedule is the largest hurdle to finding additional time in the day for recess and lunch.
ASD60, however, believes that the district can create additional time for a recess and lunch block while maintaining an evidence-based literacy block in the existing day. To do this, ASD will 1) need to shorten the time dedicated to WIN from 40 to 25 minutes and 2) explicitly encourage teachers to offer brain breaks to their students as needed. Schools around the country (for instance in MT, MT, MA, PA, IA, KS, TX, CA, MN, MO, ND, OK, and TX again) have dedicated considerably larger percentages of their day to recess and lunch periods than ASD, while preserving time for robust curriculums and dedicated time for direct instruction (“WIN”).
ASD60 recognizes that the district’s attempt to meet grade-level literacy standards are intended to help all students. Further, we recognize that a 45-minute block for lunch and recess is a step forward for some elementary schools. However, we believe that the district could preserve additional time in students’ days to meet students’ biological needs and ensure that they are better positioned to learn. No matter how well teachers are prepared to teach, what accountability measures are put in place, what governing structures are established for schools, educational progress will be profoundly limited if students are not given sufficient time to play, time to eat, and time to grow. To really equip all children to be lifelong learners and have the executive functioning that they require to succeed in the 21st century, all children must have ample time for playful discovery, to find ways to collaborate, to deal with their feelings, and to simply eat with their friends.
Please join ASD60 as we ask the Anchorage School District to improve all students’ capacity to learn by increasing and protecting the time dedicated to recess and lunch.