By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messengers
BURLINGTON — Most elementary school students look forward to recess, but that doesn’t mean it’s all fun and games. While playing sports on the playground, ultra-competitive moments can sometimes lead to arguments and poor behavior, said Chris Schwarz, assistant principal at Notre Dame Catholic Schools in Burlington.
Enter in the idea of structured recess — one in which educators help lead students in playground sports such as soccer, kickball, walking and running. It’s a concept Schwarz and elementary physical education (PE) teacher Aaron Skopec experimented with this school year, and they believe it’s a winner.
Previously, the school followed a standard recess practice, where children played on their own under the watchful eye of a teacher’s aide. Now, Schwarz and Skopec take time out of their schedules to lead a variety of athletic games and walking challenges during the noon recesses. Participation is not mandatory, as some students prefer using playground equipment or doing other activities, but Schwarz observes the students enjoy having the option of structured activities.
“It’s a simple concept, but having more organization has really helped,” Schwarz said. “The kids ask me ‘What are we doing today?’ They’ve come to expect the structure and they thrive on it.”
Schwarz and Skopec take on a variety of “roles” during recess, including kickball pitcher and basketball or soccer referee. On another day, they might organize a rope-jumping contest. The activities rotate, though walking and running around the school’s athletic track is a daily activity. Students can earn incentives for walking or running a certain distance, such as a Notre Dame water bottle or plastic foot charms to add to a simple necklace. Walkers and runners have participated in collective distance challenges, too.
As an added bonus, Schwarz observes that the walking and running opportunity has helped some of the more anxious or shy students relieve stress and make new friends.
An aide remains on duty while Schwarz and Skopec lead activities. Because the administrator and PE teacher can set boundaries and moderate the students during their most competitive moments, they are able to help the students self-correct and get into fewer disagreements. This, in turn, has led to a reduction in disciplinary action, Schwarz said. “While it might sound weird that an administrator is out taking part (at recess), for me it’s fun because I can be in a relaxed environment with students but when arguments happen, I’m right there to work it out.”
It’s a commitment for Schwarz and Skopec to take 40 minutes out of their free time daily to help at recess, but they’ve enjoyed it and plan to do it again next year. Skopec said it is a chance for him to see the students take what they’ve learned in physical education classes and apply it to real-life situations. “I think both PE and the recess program complement each other by striving to teach kids good social skills within sports. PE and recess work on fair play, sportsmanship and respect. The settings are a bit different, and recess gives kids a time to practice some of those social skills we talk about in PE.”
Schwarz — who enjoys running and is a former college baseball player — said he has fun with the kids at recess. During a recent jump-rope contest, Schwarz got in on the fun and hopped more than 300 times before tripping. The students “were laughing and cheering me on. And I got a workout while I was working!”
In addition to the daily exercises in sportsmanship, Schwarz is optimistic that the activities will help the students develop a lifelong love for physical activity. “It’s teaching them that fitness is a priority and I’m hoping a lot of them … will develop a lifelong habit.”