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Colette Luke/MEDILL

Chappell Elementary School will now have recess. Principal Joseph Peila speaks about the effect it has had on children and using Playworks to structure recess.

No more empty playgrounds: All Chicago elementary schools now have recess

by Colette Luke
Nov 14, 2012

The playground at Chappell Elementary School is filled with children chasing each other on the jungle gyms, playing four square and joining in on a game of soccer and kickball. There is an exorbitant amount of energy and life in this area that was once quiet and empty.

For the first time in three decades, all Chicago public elementary schools will have recess. It is a requirement under Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s public health initiative and longer school days.

Joseph Peila has been principal at Chappell Elementary School for six years and this will be his first time having recess at the school. He has already seen positive results including calmness and focus from students.

“Students are more relaxed. I see it in the way they are in the building, “Peila said. “They sit down and get rid of energy. It’s made for a really nice environment here.”

Peila has always been in support of recess. Before coming to Chappell, he worked at schools in the suburbs where they had it.

“Kids need recess, “Peila said. “They need to interact and learn how to be and just relax a little bit.”

According to Chicago Public Schools, only 40 percent of elementary schools offered recess last year. Some schools opted to have a "closed campus," which eliminated recess, to make up for the short school day. Now, with the longer school days, elementary and middle schools can incorporate time for play. Last year, a regular elementary school day was 5 hours and 45 minutes and this year it has increased to seven hours.

The longer school day is divided into six hours of instruction, 45 minutes of recess and lunch and 15 minutes for non-instructional activities like home room. At Chappell Elementary School, recess is 20 minutes long with a 25-minute lunch. CPS requires that recess be at least 20 minutes long.

Carol Adolphus-Castro has been teaching at Chappell Elementary School for the past 17 years. She teaches ESL, bilingual and world language classes. She favors the longer school days because kids are now able to take classes they couldn’t before, like arts and music.

“Longer school days give opportunities to students they didn’t have,” Adolphus-Castro said. “Students have more opportunities to learn and express their ideas and create products.”

At the end of October, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave Chicago Public Schools $4.4 million over two years to implement Healthy CPS, a component of Emanuel’s public health initiative and the city’s first multi-agency public health agenda. As part of the grant, CPS will be working with the city’s Department of Public Health to provide training opportunities for recess supervisors and find additional recess space for schools.

With recess being at all schools now, some are using the national nonprofit organization Playworks to structure their recess time. At Chappell School, Rebecca Kirkpatrick from Playworks leads recess for every grade. The children have options to play kickball, four square or soccer. Playworks chooses students to be “junior coaches” who go through training on preventing bullying. They participate in games during recess and make sure other children are playing fairly and kindly.

According to a study by Mathematic Policy Research and Stanford University, teachers in Playworks schools reported less bullying compared with schools that did not use Playworks. Teachers also reported better student behavior at recess and readiness for classes. Nearly 100 percent of teachers in Playworks schools wanted the program back again the next year.

Last year, Playworks had representatives at six schools and this year it is starting with 16, according to the nonprofit’s Chicago Program Director Colleen Harvey.

With longer school days and a more active playground, Peila is enjoying the new additions at Chappell.

“This has been a year of great changes, “Peila said. “We’ve always had a great school, but now we have an even better one.”