Miriam Barnett was among a group of parents who attended the District 65 Policy Committee meeting on Jan. 11, 2016, a petition in hand with over 300 signatures asking the District to enact a policy on recess. “We weren’t even asking for additional recess time … our main goal was to protect it,” Barnett said. “There were a lot of students who were losing recess for punitive reasons … especially in elementary school.” 

The fact that so many parents had signed the petition, within 24 hours of its creation, underscored the importance of recess to families throughout the District, Barnett said. 

Students play at recess on Kingsley Elementary School playground shortly before the pandemic resulted in Evanston public school closures in March 2020. (Photo by Heidi Randhava)

Barnett says recess has many benefits, from enhanced attention in the classroom to the development of social skills. The recess petition, she added, “wasn’t just a bunch of parents who were like, ‘Our kids should play more.’ There’s so much research that backs this up.” 

Following a highly engaged discussion at that meeting in 2016, Board members demurred from crafting an official policy but “they were willing to write guidelines. But the guidelines were not, you know, enforceable,” Barnett said, adding that tracking, to quantify how many students were losing recess as a punitive measure, was also recommended.

Fast-forward to the District 65 Policy and Curriculum meeting last Monday, Sept. 20. Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Stacy Beardsley reported that K-5 District schools are in compliance with the new recess law, which requires 30 minutes of unstructured play per normal school day.

Signed into law by Governor J.B. Pritzker on Aug. 13 and effective immediately, this landmark legislation represents the longest recess mandate for a state nationwide, with the exception of Arkansas, which enacted a 40-minute recess requirement in 2019.

Barnett welcomed this news, celebrating not only the recess protection advocated by the parent group in 2016, but also the amount of time dedicated to unstructured play. Thirty minutes “doesn’t sound like much, but I’m just thinking … that’s a 50% increase [from what it had been]. And when you think of it percentage-wise, it’s a fair amount of additional playtime for these kids.” 

Recess seen as education equity issue

The “Right to Play Every Day” bill, SB 654, was championed by a coalition of organizations led by Illinois Families for Public School (IL-FPS) and sponsored by State Representative and former teacher Aarón Ortíz, D-Chicago, in the Illinois House and State Senator Robert Peters in the Senate.

Barnett said that she became aware of the bill when she was contacted by Cassie Creswell, parent and director of IL-FPS, who was looking for people to “garner support at the local level to contact our local representatives in the state of Illinois” and had come across Barnett’s petition.

In a statement released by IL-FPS, Peters said, “When I was growing up, unstructured playtime was a key part of my development, which is why I believe it should be a guaranteed right for all kids,“ adding “physical activity also helps keep children’s minds sharp, and the exercise they get helps keep them healthy.”

For Ortíz, who did not have recess as a child, the bill represented an opportunity for equity repair, according to IL-FPS. “This bill is personal to me,” he said in the IL-FPS news release. “No child in Illinois should go through elementary school without recess, and we know the kids most likely to not have recess at all or have it withheld are children of color and those from low-income households. Guaranteeing a right to play is an education equity issue.”

During summer planning, according to Beardsley, District 65 “built our K-5 schedules with the Recess Law in mind, and so currently our students are receiving the 30 minutes of unstructured play, which is what is required by the State law.”

Kids can’t lose playtime as punishment

Beardsley further stated that this technology-free period cannot be “removed as a form of punishment, or removed period, with the exception of some conditions around [Individualized Education Programs],” in compliance with the State law.

Although Barnett’s two children have moved on from elementary school, she heralded the change, especially “coming out of a year of kids being home on screens, and not seeing other kids and not playing.”

She also credited the strength in numbers approach of IL-FPS. “Sometimes it can be so frustrating to try to make change, because as we know, change often is very difficult to make, and it takes a long time.” 

The group of parents at the 2016 policy meeting may not have succeeded in convincing the District 65 Board to create a recess protection policy, but the combination of various local efforts throughout the State brought results. Barnett said it’s “really exciting that this law got passed, especially on a statewide level, because it affects so many more kids.” 

Bessie Mbadugha

Bessie N. A. Mbadugha took a hiatus from her previous life as a Chemistry professor to devote more time to her family, and became an active leader in numerous community initiatives in Hillsborough, North...