On a recent day, children enjoyed recess by going down a curvy slide, climbing a spirally pole and running on the school playground at Bennett Park Montessori School on the East Side.
Over at Ohio Elementary School in North Tonawanda, students moved energetically in their classrooms to an exercise video.
And at Sidway Elementary School in Grand Island, kindergartners drew outside on the pavement with chalk and ran a small obstacle course, while others spun hula hoops and jumped rope in the gymnasium.
Many kids have been able to get outside this spring to run around and play.
But the reality is that almost all school districts in Western New York and across New York State fail to meet the 120 minutes of physical education required weekly for children in kindergarten through sixth grade.
Kids in kindergarten through third grade are supposed to have PE daily, while fourth- to sixth-graders are expected to have it at least three times a week.
With blocks of time already dedicated to mandatory school instructionand standardized testing, there’s little time left for exercise.
There is also no consistency in providing recess – unstructured play time that, unlike PE, is not required despite conclusive research that it promotes social learning, releases energy and stress, and minimizes disruptive behaviors.
The need to return balance to the physical needs of children, proponents say, is great, especially as obesity explodes among young people due at least in part to video games, unsafe neighborhoods and sugar- and fat-loaded diets.
“The medical and scientific evidence is irrefutable,” said Dr. Steven Lana, medical director for Buffalo Public Schools. “Engaged children, active children, make better students. The lethargy that overcomes us when we’re inactive translates not just to our bodies, but to our minds. So getting kids out and blowing off some energy not only keeps them healthy, but makes them better students.”
In Buffalo, regulations by the end of June could require recess beginning in the fall, putting teeth on a district wellness policy adopted last year but that has yet to be fully implemented.
Superintendent Pamela C. Brown’s draft regulations, which will be voted on by the Buffalo Board of Education, call for 20 minutes of recess daily.
“I think we all agree that the research is very clear. If children are going to be in our buildings for six hours a day, there need to be ample opportunities for physical activity classes, and it does mean recess, and they’re not the same thing,” said Will Keresztes, associate superintendent for educational services.
“We fully agree that recess is critical for our children to receive the whole education that parents expect.”
Some parents have been clamoring for change.
Jessica Bauer Walker, chairwoman of the health committee for the District Parent Coordinating Council, led a large group who appeared at the School Board meeting April 10 urging more recess and phys ed.
“Generally speaking, children in grades K through 3 are getting physical education once maybe every six days for 30 minutes, which is about 25 percent of compliance. And you really do find in the lower-income schools, where there are not the same rates of empowered parents ... that they get it less. So it’s an equity issue.”
Many fifth- and sixth-graders also have fewer opportunities for physical activities after they leave elementary school.
“One of the things that’s really unfortunate in the City of Buffalo is when the kids are changing schools at fifth grade, and are put into a high school environment where there are no playgrounds,” said Kris Kemmis, an Olmsted 64 parent who obtained a $30,000 matching grant for new playground equipment when the school building reopens in September.
“The focus is academics, but the idea of play as an educational component is removed despite everything we know about its value.”
The district estimates up to 30 physical education teachers could be needed if the district is to come into compliance, which with looming deficits appears unlikely.
While some officials have suggested more PE teachers could be hired, Sam Magavern, co-director of the Partnership for the Public Good, said state standards must be met.
“This is legally required by the state Department of Education and should be thought of not as optional but as a legally binding requirement that has to be followed. Most people can’t imagine that kids would sit all day and not get any physical activity,” Magavern said.
Five years ago, the State Comptroller’s Office took a look at physical education in 20 districts and found almost none of them were living up to the minimum requirements. The audit jolted some districts to find creative solutions.
“That just put school districts on alert that they needed to do the best they can to meet these requirements,” said Cynthia Bullis, director of physical education and athletics in North Tonawanda.
Schools there now have a classroom program known as GymB4, which is played on interactive white boards. It supplements gym classes for kindergarten through third grade.
Students stretch or do aerobic activities that can be done in class around their desks.
Bullis said anti-obesity campaigns such as the one championed by first lady Michelle Obama have helped put the need for physical activity on the radar screen for schools.
“It’s just come to the forefront because of childhood obesity,” Bullis said.
That’s led some school administrators to become increasingly creative.
It has given rise to programs such as GymB4 and Deskercise, which provide teachers with daily fitness videos for use in the classroom.
Students at Sidway go to gym class two or three days a week. On the other days, their classroom teacher is responsible for teaching PE either in the classroom or in a smaller gym that has hula hoops, scooters and other equipment.
Teachers also integrate quick activities like jumping jacks into regular instruction – anything, Principal Denise Dunbar said, to get the “wiggles out.”
“At this age, it’s critical for 5- and 6-year-olds to be doing something,” Dunbar said. “Their attention spans and their amount of time on task is shorter than in the older grades.”
Physical education teachers in Niagara Falls came up with a plan to meet state requirements a few years ago.
Children in kindergarten through second grade have only 60 minutes of instruction a week with a PE teacher, so the district requires classroom teachers to make up the other required 60 minutes.
“We were aware of the mandate ,and we grappled with how are we going to do that?” said Carol Gold, administrator for curriculum and instruction in Niagara Falls City School District.
“We couldn’t really afford to hire more physical education teachers, and you couldn’t put one more thing in the day where the children were pulled out of the classroom.”
To meet the standards, teachers were given access to a Deskercise program that guides children through calisthenics in the classroom, but they can also conduct organized physical activities outside for about 20 minutes a day.
Teachers must document in their plan books what activities were done each day.
There is also a movement nationwide to get kids outside more and away from learning with electronic devices.
Richard Louv, a central figure and author of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Defecit Disorder,” has warned that a lack of exposure to nature and free play is resulting in rising rates of attention disorders, depression and obesity.