Recess has returned to the playgrounds of School District 71’s elementary schools as of February. That’s good news for children and teachers.

But why the school district eliminated recess at the start of this school year and the reasons for reinstating it now aren’t such good news: it’s political and, most egregiously, has nothing to do with children and the benefits they reap from the power of play.

The blame starts with B.C. Liberal Party leader Christy Clark who has seriously underfunded British Columbia public schools for more than a decade and robbed our children of world-class educational opportunities.

But the blame doesn’t end there.

To close a $3 million funding gap for the 2016-17 school year, local Comox Valley school trustees rejected a proposal by some parents to close underused and low-enrollment schools.

They chose instead to institute a 4.6-day school week, which ends at 12:01 p.m. every Friday for all Comox Valley schools. That saved the district about $1.8 million, and resulted in the firing of more than 15 teaching support staff because teacher preparation time was rolled into Friday afternoons. Spring break was cut in half.

But the shortened school week created a number of new problems.

Some students stopped going to school on Friday mornings because in many cases no substantial instruction occurs during the shortened versions of a full day’s classes. This squeeze on time led one district secondary teacher to apologize to his students before they took a province-wide exam for being unable to teach the full curriculum.

The district also eliminated recess, which they called a “gift” for elementary students and teachers to which they weren’t legally entitled. They reclassified recess as instructional time.

The loss of recess may seem inconsequential, but its importance for energetic young children goes beyond the need to stretch and move after hours of sitting still. Kids learn many of life’s important lessons on the playground.

There is a sophistication to the world of play that may be lost on many of us. Play gives educators, and parents, a chance to peek into the sometimes hidden world of children. When you want to see what children are really interested in, watch what they do when they have nothing to do.
For children, play is always purposeful. It is up to us as adults to unearth the special significance of the playful act. It may be a role that the child is trying on for the future.

There’s a possibility that taking away the joy that children get from recess will demotivate them and cause them to do less well in other areas. The amount of material children have to accomplish these days is overwhelming, so teachers have to move fast. With that kind of intensity in the classroom, kids and teachers need a break.

Recess should be considered an important part of the elementary curriculum, just as math and science. When children play, they’re thinking, solving problems, investigating and learning language skills. It’s the only part of the day when they can do whatever they want, so they learn how to cooperate, socialize and work out conflicts.

Fortunately, the Comox District Teachers’ Association had a tool to push back and they used it. The elimination of recess violated the contract language for elementary school teachers. In order to live up to its collective agreement with teachers, the school district reinstated recess, but continues to classify it as instructional time.

This sets the stage for a possible new contract issue, because the B.C. School Act clearly specifies that recess (and the time for lunch and between classes) cannot be considered instructional time.

School trustees and teachers both want to do the right thing. But this is the type of confusion and tension caused by the chronic underfunding of public schools.

So recess was reinstated. But not because it’s good for children or indirectly improves learning back in the classroom. Young Comox Valley school children can only rediscover the power of play thanks to a contractual technicality.

We should worry about the future of a society where kids are not encouraged to run and play. Where the power of play is devalued. Where there is no unstructured time to fuel imagination, encourage creativity and strength social development.

When you take away recess, you take away a complex learning environment that contributes to healthy childhood development.

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