Elementary schoolchildren across Florida would have 20 minutes every school day to run around outside and play, under a parent-driven proposal that advanced out of its first state House committee on Tuesday.
Nearly three dozen parents and education advocates testified in favor of HB 833, which would require schools to provide daily recess, in addition to the required physical education instruction.
After an hour of testimony -- and no voiced opposition -- the House K-12 Subcommittee voted unanimously to move along the proposal sponsored by Reps. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando, and Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs.
Lawmakers and parents cited numerous benefits associated with unrestricted free time for children -- including the ability for students to be creative, learn social skills and get a reprieve from a packed schedule of lessons.
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Stephanie Cox, a parent of two elementary school-aged children in Pinellas County, told lawmakers the bill would "provide students more balance in the day."
"In recess, they’re given the opportunity to have a choice and talk with their friends and choose what they want to do," Cox said.
Daily recess for elementary schoolchildren is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, among others.
Plasencia, who is a teacher and track-and-field coach, said the lack of limitations on recess is what makes it distinct from physical education class.
"Kids not only have opportunity to let out steam and play but they also have the opportunity to be creative and play games," he said.
While no one spoke against the bill on Tuesday, Plasencia said after the hearing that school districts "are having a difficult time with demands." Recess could add another by requiring schools to set aside time and staff, which could mean extra cost, also.
Plasencia said district officials also worry about students' performance in the classroom and on standardized assessments -- which affects school grades and teacher evaluations -- but he said that dedication to academics is now back-firing, at least in this way.
"They're going too far in the opposite direction; it's almost a knee-jerk reaction," he said. "The lack of recess in some of our schools is an overreaction and it's counter-productive."
Plasencia said he's talked with parents from all over the state -- including Miami-Dade, Pinellas and several central Florida counties -- who want a uniform requirement for recess. Parents, too, have been rallying support and some said Tuesday their districts either aren't listening or are too hesitant to add recess when there's so little time in the school day as it is.
"I find it unfortunate that we need to be here to advocate for our children for such a basic, fundamental opportunity," said Barbara Hedge, a mother from St. Petersburg with three elementary school-aged children.
Republicans on the committee said it was the Legislature's duty to step up given the districts' lack of action.
"We’re up here to deal with state issues, and we don’t like to put our thumb on local government decision-making when it's not necessary," Rep. Shawn Harrison, R-Tampa, said. "But on an issue that makes absolutely so much sense, we really can’t say no to it."
Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, said the state bears some responsibility in districts' reluctance to allot time for recess.
"We mandate a lot of things that need to be taught and increasingly that list is longer and longer," he said. "That mandate is part of what’s driving recess out of our schools, because there's not enough out of the day. ... We have to let our kids be kids. We have to let them have the chance at a mental break."
The proposal would apply to all students in kindergarten through fifth grade and for sixth-graders, whose school has one or more elementary school grades. Teachers and administrators would be prohibited from withholding recess "for academic or punitive reasons."
Parents have said they're concerned the Senate version of the recess bill -- SB 1002 by Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla -- isn't a priority in that chamber. That bill, along with nearly 80 others, awaits an initial hearing before the Senate Education Pre-K-12 Committee, chaired by Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity.
Plasencia said he planned to talk to Legg today about getting the Senate version heard. Plasencia's bill has two more committee hearings in the House.