Recess—the last bastion of free play for school-aged children—is under attack. Unstructured break time for children has been eliminated or drastically cut in many American elementary schools, and now I learn that it is being eroded in my home province of Ontario as well. In a number of school boards across the province, a program called Balanced School Day (BSD) has been introduced. Under this program, traditional lunch and recess breaks are replaced by two"nutrition breaks" of approximately 40 minutes each, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. When compared with the traditional schedule of two 15-minute recess breaks (one in the morning and one in the afternoon), and an hour-long lunch period, BSD cuts the total break time children receive during the day by a mere 10 minutes. So, one might ask, what's the big deal? If, as proponents of BSD claim, restructuring the school day in this manner allows for longer instructional blocks, leading to improvements in students' concentration and behaviour, why would anyone (such as me) object to it?
The answer to this question becomes clear when one compares the two scheduling models more closely. In the traditional schedule, kids get a total of 30 minutes of pure recess time, and a lunch period comprised of, on average, a 20-minute period for eating, followed by 40 minutes of outdoor play time. That's a total of 70 minutes of unstructured play time per day. In the Balanced Day schedule, the twice-daily nutrition breaks are each divided into two twenty minute blocks, one for eating and one for outdoor play. So BSD allows for a total of 40 minutes of free play per day, versus 70 minutes under the traditional schedule. As even a young child with minimal math skills could tell you, this is a substantial difference!
In fact, according to a study of BSD in four elementary schools in the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board from 2002-2004, kids do seem to notice and to care about the reduction in recess time. The authors of the report observe that along with certain benefits—for example, a cleaner school, less time wasted in "transitions" from playground to school—there were some negative effects of the alternative schedule. There was, for example, "somewhat more total aggression on the playground in BSD schools and somewhat more hallway aggression during transition times." As for overall satisfaction with BSD, the authors concede: "The students . . . were least satisfied with the new schedule." I'm happy that students' opinions were solicited; I'm not surprised that they would prefer a schedule that better accommodates their need—and their right—to play. But since principals, caretakers, parents, teachers and secretaries tended to view BSD in a more positive light, I'm also not surprised that the program has since become the norm in a majority of schools throughout the Hamilton-Wentworth board, and has been implemented in many other school boards across the province. After all, even in situations where students are affected more directly by potential changes than anyone else, when push comes to shove, and policy decisions must be made, adults' views invariably trump those of children. Currently, it seems that a majority of adults in charge of education policy privilege measures purporting to improve "achievement" over those concerned primarily with the well-being of children. That is why—for all the talk of "nurturing" environments, and despite nominally progressive, well-intentioned policies such as BSD—many schools remain fundamentally un-child-friendly places for young people to spend their days.
*In fairness, it is possible to find more unequivocally positive accounts of BSD, for example, on websites of the school boards that have embraced it. There also exist summaries of the research paper cited above that put a much more positive spin on the results, ignoring the negatives identified by the authors. The fact remains, however, that students surveyed for the Hamilton-Wentworth study—the only objective, in-depth look at BSD to date—expressed a clear preference for the traditional schedule.