Coalition works to bring recess back to schools

Rockford Construction CEO among those interested in keeping kids happy and healthy.
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Kids playing outside on a jungle gym during recess.

Students take a break from class to play with friends during recess. Courtesy iStock

A new coalition is raising awareness around the lack of recess and is advocating for the increase in physical activity, play and recess for all students in Michigan.

The Coalition for Michigan Schoolchildren’s Right to Play was convened by Playworks Michigan, a nonprofit affiliate working to keep kids active and healthy through play and recess.

The coalition is made up of 20 members, including, Paul Liabenow and Mike VanGessel. 

Liabenow, executive director of the Michigan Elementary and Middle School Principals Association, said the coalition is designed to support policies and guidance for adequate recess time for students, particularly in elementary schools.

“Over time, with changes in policies, guidance and funding, we’ve seen a reduction in the number of minutes for recess or play time. So we are attempting to work at, eventually, seeing legislation passed, but at minimum policy and guidance from our Department of Education and community to support a minimum of recess time for students to have each day,” he said. “Also, guidance in not holding back recess time as punishment or penalty for adverse behavior.”

The state of Michigan does not require elementary schools to provide daily recess and it does not require a minimum weekly amount of physical activity time for elementary, middle school/junior high or high school students.

“I’ve always been focused on supporting the community, and education is one of the most valuable resources we have,” said VanGessel, CEO of Rockford Construction in Grand Rapids. “After a year of hybrid and online instruction, getting back to school should be about the human interaction we all crave. What most people don’t realize is that recess is not required in schools and in many cases has been completely eliminated. Play, through recess, is important because it makes school a fun place and allows students to feel comfortable and open themselves up to learning new things.”

According to a Michigan recess survey conducted by Corona Insights, more than 80% of Michigan residents were unaware of the lack of recess requirement in public elementary schools. Ninety-three percent of Michigan residents who completed the survey said they were very likely or somewhat likely to support requiring public elementary schools in Michigan to have recess. The response they gave for supporting recess requirement was based on an array of reasons: a break to refocus; movement and exercise; socialization and expending energy; and to just have fun.

Archer, CEO of Ignition Media Group and president of Archer Corporate Services, said he did not know there was a lack of recess time. 

“I was very naïve and floored to come to find out that some students were not afforded the opportunity for gym and recess at school,” he said. “I think I was in the majority of thinkers that believe there is always gym and recess. I knew that due to budget cuts or lower income or financially pressured school districts, art and music programs and sports were getting cut, but I thought erroneously for gym (classes). You just open the door for gym and give the kids a kickball or a basketball for 30 minutes and that is gym, or open the door and let the kids go play out on the playground and you blow the whistle and they come back.”

Archer said his perspective changed after he visited an elementary school in Detroit with Angela Rogensues, former executive director of Playworks Michigan.

Playworks Michigan provides onsite coaching, training, consulting and digital services. The organization partners with elementary schools, districts and after-school programs to integrate physical activity and social-emotional learning and skill-building during recess. 

“I watched these Playworks employees command the children’s attention and their respect and the excitement of the young Black kids on the east side of Detroit,” Archer said. “Immediately, I thought, ‘How is the best way to help?’ I made financial contributions and agreed to co-chair one of (Playworks’) annual fundraising events and invited some of my colleagues to support. I have just been a fan all along. So, I signed up for the coalition because of the kids. The kids who don’t have a voice to ask or demand what they deserve and what kids in better-off school district take for granted.”

Archer said some schools simply cannot afford a gym teacher.

“In well-off schools there is sometimes a gym teacher, but often times that gym teacher is a coach or fulfils another role at the school,” he said. “Many times, there is a strain on teachers in an underfunded school environment and always being asked to do more with less. For those teachers who are represented by unions — the unions have to do their jobs in representing the well-being of their teachers and making sure that they are compensated for the work that they were hired to do and making sure that they are being compensated for the work that they are hired to do within the hours they are hired to work. So, I think it becomes in large part a funding issue, which is why the coalition believes there should be a line-item approach at the state level, identifying budgets for the execution of gym and recess across all schools in the state of Michigan.”

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