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California’s K-8 Students Guaranteed Outdoor Time with New Recess Law

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Children are playing at recess on the schoolgrounds.
Child advocates like Playworks, Northern California, Executive Director Laura Medina Quintanar say that recess is incredibly valuable for cognitive, social, emotional and physical activity opportunities. (Courtesy of Playworks Northern California)

Kids across California are getting a lot more time to play outside. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 291 into law last week, making a half-hour of recess mandatory for all elementary school students from kindergarten through eighth grade in the state.

The new law will also prohibit educators from withholding recess as a form of punishment. Laura Medina Quintanar, executive director of the nonprofit Playworks, Northern California, which encourages kids to stay active while building valuable social and emotional skills through play, sat down with KQED’s Brian Watt to discuss the impacts quality outdoor recess can have on growing minds.

She also discussed what parents and educators can expect once the law goes into effect next school year.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Brian Watt: This law guarantees kids half an hour of playtime outside. Why does that matter?

A smiling woman with long brown hair and a hot pink sweatshirt is seen standing on a playground on a sunny afternoon.
Laura Medina Quintanar is the executive director at the nonprofit Playworks, Northern California. (Courtesy of Playworks Northern California)

Laura Medina Quintanar: First and foremost, this legislation puts a very needed spotlight on the importance of recess time. A lot of times, we think of recess almost as a throwaway in between that really valuable academic time.

But we learned, especially during the pandemic, that recess, and the way that it complements the school day, is incredibly valuable for all kinds of cognitive, social, emotional, and, of course, physical activity opportunities.

Do you believe that outside playtime is equally important as the classroom learning the children are gaining?

Oh yes, absolutely. Playworks has over 25 years of experience working directly with schools, with programs helping them build a sustainable capacity for safe and healthy play. What we’ve seen time and time again, is that when there are structures for high-quality recess in place, there are positive benefits that spill over from the recess time into the classroom. So we’re talking about higher retention rates, teachers having easier transitions, greater cooperation and greater collaboration among peers. So you can imagine how that contributes to a positive school climate and, ultimately, to positive life outcomes.

You mentioned the pandemic earlier — did the social isolation resulting from distance learning significantly contribute to this change?

One-hundred percent. Students were home for months, and months, and months; a year, even beyond. They didn’t get to learn to be among their peers. Meaning, they didn’t get to play. They didn’t get to practice and learn conflict-resolution strategies.

Children are playing rock, paper, scissors at recess on the schoolgrounds.
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 291 into law last week, making a half-hour of recess mandatory for all elementary school students from kindergarten through eighth grade in the state. (Courtesy of Playworks Northern California)

That makes it really hard to all of a sudden be expected to go back into the classroom. In addition to isolation, the trauma that was brought on by the pandemic, that was impacted by the pandemic.

It’s a lot to be expected to suddenly perform in this academic setting. Recess is more important than ever to help continue to ease that transition and fill all those gaps that became even larger during the pandemic.

Is it true that under SB 291, schools will no longer be allowed to deny recess as a form of punishment?

That’s very good news. We love to hear that. Any time that a student is denied the opportunity to participate in recess, they miss out on all that good stuff: All those social-emotional skill-building opportunities, the physical, the relational.

I would also highlight that, disproportionately, it’s students who come from underrepresented communities and low-income backgrounds who most often are held back and get their resources taken away from them.

From the lens of equity, it’s also very promising and great news to hear that schools will no longer be able to take away recess as a form of punishment. Instead, I really want to emphasize this: This is an opportunity for schools to really adopt the value of recess, to have the adults step up and make sure that they’re implementing quality recess, so that they can use that time to improve the experience of every student. So we’re definitely glad that it’s not a punitive space anymore.

This law goes into effect next school year. Are California schools going to be ready to meet this requirement? Are all campuses equipped to hold recess every day?

It’s going to be a challenge. At Playworks, we definitely know and believe that it is possible for every school to have safe and healthy play, but it definitely takes a lot of work. Here at Playworks, we use what we call a great recess framework, which outlines some indicators of what you might see at a high-quality recess.

Children are running around at recess on the schoolgrounds. A building with painted orange butterflies is seen in the background.
The new law will also prohibit educators from withholding recess as a form of punishment. (Courtesy of Playworks Northern California)

That looks like having caring, consistent adults who are present to play and engage with youth. It looks like kids having options of many games to play in, and the choice about what they want to do and also leadership within those games. It involves conflict-resolution strategies that are agreed upon by the school culture, but it takes time to build that.

I would say that it’s realistically going to be a process. It will be really important for schools and adults to take this new law seriously, not just as adopting the lens that quality matters as much as quantity. So it’s great that students are now going to get recess time. The work is going to be to make sure that they’re getting quality recess time.

Outside time seems to be very important. Does Playworks Northern California offer strategies for schools when the weather doesn’t allow for kids to play outdoors? 

 We love a sunny recess with a big yard, lots of equipment and lots of teachers. That’s the dream that doesn’t often happen. Schools might be underresourced or they might have all the resources, but surprise, it’s raining. So what happens then?

At Playworks, we believe in recess skills as being something that can be transformable and modified into different spaces. So many of the activities that we practice with our students can be adopted by any educator who has the opportunity to participate in our training or takes the time to look at the resources online.

You can easily modify a lot of those recess games in the classroom, which is what often happens when it rains. Students usually either stay in their classroom or take turns rotating to the school cafeteria. The benefits of recess, engaging students and those social-emotional practices, the relational pieces, you can do that inside, it’s just a little bit different and takes take some planning.

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