Do Minnesota schools need consultants to figure out recess? Some say 'yes'

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There's been some head-shaking going on lately since the Edina School District got some media attention for hiring a "recess consultant" to try out new recess strategies at two of its elementary schools.

In recent weeks, Minnesota Monthly, WCCO, KSTP and the Star Tribune have all done stories about it, and some people have rolled their eyes at the notion that a school would need a consultant to figure out how to handle recess.

Recess is typically the only part of the school day when students have unstructured time to play however they want.

But school officials say recess is also the time when most disciplinary problems occur: kids pick on or bully each other and get into fights, and some get hurt. Other students are excluded from group activities and feel isolated.

So the idea behind revamping recess is to have more structured activities that encourage all students to get involved, KSTP reports. Another goal is to teach kids better ways to resolve conflicts.

Two Edina schools have been working with a nonprofit called Playworks Minnesota, which was paid $30,000 to put together recess plans for the first semester of the school year. After that, they'll evaluate how it went and determine whether they should expand the program to other schools, according to KSTP.

Minnesota Monthly describes it as less organized than a gym class, but more active and more controlled than normal recess: Adults will lead kids in various group activities like soccer, jump rope or four square. Students also have the option of doing their own thing. And when a conflict arises, the leaders help the kids work through it quickly.

The Edina district says most parents have supported the effort so far. But the Star Tribune notes that others aren't as enthused. A group of parents is circulating a petition asking the school to drop the structured recess plan.

Some kids said they're confused by the change and that recess is no longer fun. One mother told the newspaper her son "feels like that’s not playing anymore."

But the principal at Normandale Elementary, one of the test schools, said he's already seeing a positive change after just a few weeks.

Chris Holden said fewer students have been sent to his office, or the nurse's office, after recess for disciplinary reasons or because they got hurt, according to the Star Tribune.

Playworks has been around since 1996, when its founder Jill Vialet set up the program at two elementary schools in California after an exasperated principal complained to her about daily chaos on the playground.

On our playgrounds, everyone plays, everyone belongs, everyone contributes to the game. Coaches encourage kids to bring out the best in themselves and each other, and kids learn the value of fair play, compassion and respect.

Playworks says the schools it works with report fewer discipline problems, more participation in physical activities at recess, and better focus in class.

Playworks began operating in Minnesota in 2010. It has programs are already in place at more than a dozen schools in the Twin Cities metro area, including in the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts.

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