How recess may look at one Fairfax Co. middle school

Seeking feedback on the newly-implemented recess time for middle school students, Rocky Run Middle principal Amy Goodloe learned that one teacher wanted to supervise the school’s “walking club” in Chantilly, Virginia.

It’s not officially a club offered at the Fairfax County public school, but walking outside has become part of the friend group’s routine, Goodloe said. Inclement weather doesn’t slow the group down either — the students and teachers walk the hallways in the event of bad weather.

“She’s seeing kids who might never have had an opportunity to interact in a classroom setting, just taking that break to walk and get steps in, get some physical exercise, but also socialize and talk with peers they may not have had classes with,” Goodloe said.

All county middle schools are offering recess or breaks in anticipation of middle school recess becoming a requirement next year. The school board is expected to formally approve the change to its health and wellness policy next week. Superintendent Scott Brabrand said principals are already factoring the 15-minute daily recess into next year’s schedules.

Proponents of the change hope the physical activity will help students remain focused during the school day and socialize in-person after the return from virtual learning. Recess improves student memory, attrition and concentration and helps reduce disruptive behavior in the classroom, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Parents skeptical of the 15-minute break because it takes students away from time in class should note “this is a value add for our students, and for our teachers — it gives everyone that chance to refresh and refocus and also reconnect with peers, with colleagues and just have a time during the school day to make sure they’re focusing on wellness and well being,” Goodloe said.

Because school size varies, the recess period won’t be uniform — Goodloe, for one, said the school expects to have 900 students enrolled next year, so it will plan for two separate recess sessions.

Rocky Run students will have their choice of activity, with options including walking, field activities like kickball, group board games and time to collaborate in small groups or read.

Goodloe said the school is evaluating its physical education equipment, to make sure there are enough basketballs and jump ropes, among other things. Parents have donated board and card games for students to use and some teachers have offered to sponsor recess groups in which students can knit or crochet.

“Middle schoolers oftentimes are still kids in just bigger bodies,” Goodloe said. “And they need that opportunity to play and move and have a break from the academic time.”

Catherine Stewart, a Fairfax County mom whose daughter is attending middle school next year, said she was first involved in discussions about middle school recess in 2018. When the pandemic started, she said, it wasn’t top of mind, but the school board worked toward making it happen.

Efforts to launch middle school recess stemmed from a parent group’s desire to extend elementary school recess beyond 30 minutes, Stewart said. The change in policy for middle schools will make recess more equitable too, she said — some elementary schools in Fairfax County include sixth grade, meaning those sixth graders are entitled to a 30-minute break.

Stewart said her daughter is excited that she won’t lose the opportunity for a longer break when she starts middle school.

“All of this virtual learning and social distancing has shown people how much outside time and free time is important to kids,” Stewart said.

“Before four years ago, when we started this, the only break middle school students got was five minutes passing time between classes. Some of the middle school students that I talked to at the time said that wasn’t even enough time for them to go to the bathroom.”

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Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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