By Justine Josue and Colin Knechtl
Disciplinary referrals in the Patchogue-Medford school district have been cut in half after five months under the Whole Child Development program, Dr. Michael Hynes, superintendent of the district, said.
The Whole Child Development program doubles recess and combines play with learning through structured play, which is directed by teachers, and unstructured play, which is directed freely by the students. Under this program, playtime does not end when recess ends, and is, instead, mixed into learning. “We’re trying to improve the students’ social and emotional skills,” Hynes said.
At Eagle Elementary School of the Patchogue-Medford school district, referrals decreased by 43 percent and standardized test scores increased by 42 percent, according to their records since the beginning of the school year. “I will directly relate that to the extension of recess time and the introduction of structured and unstructured play during class,” Erin Skahill, the principal of the school, said.
Some parents of the district also seem to like the changes. “Before, when I asked my kids what they did in school, they would shrug and say, ‘Nothing,’” Kelley Oppedisano, a mother with three sons attending school in the district, said. “Now, they talk about what they did in structured and unstructured play.”
Classes have access to “The Imagination Station” and “The Wonder Room,” rooms with open spaces and toys such as Lincoln Logs, LEGO and giant foam blocks. Teachers use these rooms for play and lessons.
The district school board’s decision to implement a program that increases recess time and decreases class time comes during a period of many schools doing the exact opposite. Forty percent of school districts nationwide have reduced recess in an attempt to have students in class longer for higher standardized test scores, according to the American Association for the Child’s Right to Play.
This decline of playtime alarmed The American Academy of Pediatrics. They responded by releasing the policy statement “The Crucial Role of Recess in School,” which concluded that recess was necessary for social, emotional, physical and cognitive development.
“I applaud the Patchogue-Medford school district,” Dr. Robert Murray, the Ohio State University pediatrician who helped write up this statement, said. “Recess de-stresses and prepares the child for the next set of classes, improving attentiveness and classroom behavior.”
“There is absolutely less conflict during recess and my students are communicating better,” Lauren Pulice, a third grade teacher of the district, said. “I do believe that this extra play has some hefty benefits to the social and emotional well-being of the children.”
Although there has been passionate support, there has also been strong opposition. “The whole thing is a joke,” Fred Gorman, a member of the Long Islanders for Educational Reform, said. “They don’t need more time off school to get chummy-chummy with the teachers. They need more discipline, more organization and more structure.”
The American Educational Research Association would disagree with this sentiment. Recess is a break from learning and a chance to exercise. Memory is retained more efficiently when concentrated learning is combined with periods of rest and aerobic activity further enhances memory by increasing blood flow, according to a study done by the organization.
The need for recess sparked initiatives in other parts of the country as well. The LiiNK Project, based in Texas, is an attempt to enhance child education through increased recess and character development. “We need more active school environments,” Dr. Debbie Rhea, the founder of the project, said. “Unstructured play and structured physical education stimulates the brain for learning.” The project is currently in place at six school districts and 14 schools and plans to expand to more schools.
Hynes says that the results of his district’s new program have attracted attention from other school districts, notably Comsewogue in Port Jefferson, Long Island. He expects that his district will not hold the title of “The Only District to Double Recess in Long Island” for much longer.