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For the first time, California law is set to protect elementary school students’ right to recess. KPBS reporter Kori Suzuki says these changes come at a critical time for young Californians.

For the first time, California law will protect students’ right to recess

This is Part Two of a two-part series. Read Part One here.

A new California law is set to protect young students’ right to recess for the first time in state history.

That law, Senate Bill 291, defines what “recess” really means: free, unstructured time to play and socialize. It also requires that elementary students receive at least 30 minutes every day and makes it illegal for educators to take that time away as punishment.

The law will go into effect next school year. But San Diego Unified and other local districts were not yet ready to talk about their plans to meet these requirements.

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These changes come at a critical time for young Californians. The way kids play has quietly transformed over the years, with full schedules of activities replacing the freewheeling lives of older generations. And experts worry about the repercussions on kids’ mental health.

School, and recess in particular, has remained one of the few places where kids still have access to free, unstructured time. Every day, blacktops and playgrounds across the country transform into places where kids invent games and bicker and learn to find resolutions.

But recess has slowly been gnawed away. Over the last 20 years, schools nationwide have been quietly cutting back on recess times in favor of more time in the classroom, reducing it by as much as 60 minutes per week, according to one analytics firm.

It’s difficult to say definitively how much recess has changed in San Diego County. Recess times and bell schedules are decided by individual schools, and districts largely said they don’t keep that information from past years.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many parents and educators have grown increasingly concerned about play and what it means for kids’ mental health. Now, they hope that California’s new law could change the direction for schools in the nation’s largest state.

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“I'm really glad that the law is going to come into effect,” said Ana Cordova, whose 3-year-old son could start Transitional Kindergarten next year. “They're just kids — so they have all their lives to not have recess.”

Students play during recess at Perkins K-8 in San Diego on July 25, 2024.
Kori Suzuki for KPBS / California Local
Students play during recess at Perkins K-8 in San Diego. Jan. 25, 2024.
Ana Cordova kneels to help her son, Nolan, at a park at their home in downtown San Diego, California on Jan. 23, 2024.
Kori Suzuki for KPBS / California Local
Ana Cordova kneels to help her son, Nolan, at a park at their home in downtown San Diego. Jan. 23, 2024.

‘A sea change’

Recess, experts say, is more important than some might think. It is often kids’ main source of time to play freely and without structure — something that is crucial to kids’ development of social skills, creativity and long term mental health. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends that elementary students receive at least 20 minutes of recess per day.

“That interaction is an incredibly important part of child development,” said Rebecca London, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

But recess has also been under threat for decades, with critics calling it a waste of school time and contrary to the mission of the education system.

Experts say much of that motivation to cut back recess times stems from a Cold War-era push by the federal government to keep pace with other countries by sharpening public schools’ focus on academic performance.

California districts and other schools across the country started cutting recess away in favor of class time, London says. In some cities, like Atlanta, Baltimore and Chicago, officials eliminated it altogether.

“We are intent on improving academic performance. You don’t do that by having kids hanging on monkey bars,” Atlanta superintendent Benjamin Canada told The New York Times in 1998.

In 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act brought new, sweeping changes. Schools with low academic performance now risked losing federal funding, and could even be shut down. It was, London said, “a sea change.”

“It was not, ‘you get bonuses if you do well,’” she said. “It was, ‘you lose financial support if you don't make this progress.’”

Educators were suddenly under tremendous pressure. They responded by focusing on academics, sending students home with more work and lengthening the school year. Since the law went into effect, at least a fifth of U.S. school districts have also cut back recess time.

In California, London and other researchers tracked these changes in poorer schools. London analyzed a sample of low-income schools from a 2020-2021 state survey. Only half said they gave students more than 20 minutes of recess.

Researchers also found that these changes also fell more on Black and Latino students. An analysis of federal data on students from 1998-1999 found that more than 77% of white students had some recess, but just 41% of Black students and 62% of Latino students had access to that time.

“Recess in school has really just filled the void of the kids being able to exercise that sort of free will,” said Dennis Lim, a San Diego parent. “We need to do whatever we can to make sure they get as much time for that.”

Ana Cordova and her son, Nolan, walk to a park at their home in downtown San Diego, California on Jan. 23, 2024.
Kori Suzuki for KPBS / California Local
Ana Cordova and her son, Nolan, walk to a park at their home in downtown San Diego. Jan. 23, 2024.

New protections in California

In California, the decline of recess was possible in part because the state had no laws regulating recess. Instead, the state law’s approach was to direct the Department of Education to “encourage” elementary schools to provide recess time.

“The law was effectively silent,” said California state Sen. Josh Newman, D-Fullerton, who chairs the state Senate’s Education Committee.

California wasn’t alone. Just nine other states actually mandate that schools offer recess time every day, and most only offer simple recommendations or don’t address it at all. Districts nationwide also collect very little information on recess time.

Then came the pandemic. Across the state, schools closed down, isolating elementary-aged children from each other. When schools reopened over a year later, London said students were at a loss on how to cooperate or solve conflicts.

“One of the things that we heard from elementary school staff when the kids came back that first year was, ‘they don't even know how to interact with each other anymore,’” she said. “That was a year of development that children didn't get.”

For Newman, that was the turning point.

“We probably needed to explore this question about recess anyway,” he said. “But it seemed like it was really imperative to do it now — and hopefully do it right.

Newman sponsored the law adding new protections for California students’ right to recess. It defines recess as supervised, unstructured play time separate from both lunch and more structured physical education courses. It requires schools to offer 30 minutes of recess time every day and bans educators from taking that time away as punishment.

London, who testified in support of SB 291 before the Education Committee last year, is cautious about celebrating too hard. But she is certainly optimistic.

“It’s a huge change,” she said.

Students play and talk during recess at Perkins K-8 in San Diego on Jan. 25, 2024.
Kori Suzuki for KPBS / California Local
Students play and talk during recess at Perkins K-8 in San Diego. Jan. 25, 2024.
California State Senator Josh Newman stands for a portrait outside Maple Elementary School, down the street from his office, in Fullerton, California on January 12, 2024. Senator Newman is the author of SB 291, a new law that will protect elementary school students’ right to recess.
Kori Suzuki for KPBS / California Local
California State Senator Josh Newman stands for a portrait outside Maple Elementary School, down the street from his office, in Fullerton, California. He is the author of SB 291, a new law that will protect elementary school students’ right to recess. Jan. 12, 2024.

Are school districts ready?

Many San Diego-area schools already meet the requirement of at least 30 minutes of recess. But most district officials wouldn’t give interviews on how they intend to ensure schools follow all parts of the law.

KPBS reached out to four different San Diego-area school districts — San Diego Unified, Chula Vista Elementary School District, South Bay Union and National School District — and most declined to give interviews with top district officials or did not respond to a request for comment.

San Diego Unified, the state’s second-largest school district, did not agree to provide an interview in time for publication. A Chula Vista Elementary School District spokesperson said they did not have enough information on the law to answer any questions. National School District did not respond to a request for comment.

Still, many schools in the San Diego region say they do already meet the new minimum requirements for recess time this year, including South Bay Union School District in Imperial Beach.

Officials there said South Bay Union does collect bell schedules from each school, and that the district planned to review them to make sure that all schools were following the requirements of SB 291 for next year.

“Our K-8 daily schedule already includes 30 minutes of recess, so there will be no change next year,” wrote South Bay Union School District spokesperson Amy Cooper, in an email. “We value the importance of recess time in which students have the opportunity to interact with peers.”

Ana Cordova plays with her son, Nolan, at a park at their home in downtown San Diego on Jan. 23, 2024.
Kori Suzuki for KPBS / California Local
Ana Cordova plays with her son, Nolan, at a park at their home in downtown San Diego. Jan. 23, 2024.

Many parents are optimistic about these changes, including Cordova, whose son Nolan could be in Transitional Kindergarten next year. Nolan was born right after the beginning of the pandemic, and Cordova said he still has a hard time playing with other kids.

“Even still in preschool, when they have recess, he tends to keep to his own,” she said. “The teachers tell us it takes him some time to warm up.”

“And I cry,” Nolan added from the couch nearby.

Still, Cordova hopes that recess in elementary school will give Nolan another chance to keep learning those skills.

“We just want him to keep learning how to get along with different personalities and find his own group of friends,” she said.

Kori Suzuki is a reporter and visual journalist at KPBS and part of the California Local News Fellowship program. He covers the South Bay and Imperial County. He is especially drawn to stories about how we are all complicated and multidimensional.
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