New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took time out of his busy schedule as a failing Presidential candidate this week to veto a bill that would have mandated 20 minutes of recess for all New Jersey schoolchildren between Kindergarten and 5th grade. Speaking with Fox News, the Governor said that “part of my job as governor is to veto the stupid bills. That was a stupid bill and I vetoed it.” He also characterized the bill as “crazy government run amok” and mischaracterized it as requiring outdoor recess regardless of the weather conditions; the actual language of the bill expressed a preference for outdoor recess when possible. Governor Christie further berated the legislators who passed the bill by saying, “With all the other problems we have to deal with, my Legislature is worried about recess for kids from kindergarten to fifth grade?”
I think we need to clarify some points:
Collaborating with private donors to transform the city of Newark’s school system in an unproven experiment, turning the city schools over to an inept and defensive administrator who planned to close schools that were meeting their improvement goals and sending families across the city whether they wanted to go or not? That is not “crazy government run amok”.
A $108 MILLION contract with the Pearson Corporation to provide an unproven and disruptive state assessment system whose results were thoroughly misrepresented by the state’s highest education appointee? That is not “crazy government run amok”.
Granting a “graduate school of education” that is primarily a collaboration of charter school networks training their own teachers in the “no excuses” methods the sole contract to provide continuing education for teachers in the state’s largest city while increasing the requirements for traditional teacher preparation programs? That is not “crazy government run amok”.
Ramming through a major overhaul of the state’s pension fund, refusing to actually pay the state’s agreed upon contribution, but giving management of those funds to politically connected Wall Street firms who jacked up the fees to over $600 million a YEAR? That is not “crazy government run amok”.
“Crazy government run amok” is making certain that state education law requires that very young children get a daily chance to play outside while they are in school.
Governor Christie’s mocking of the legislature for spending time on something so frivolous is also sorely misplaced. Far from being unimportant, the American Academy of Pediatrics has called recess “crucial” and cites tangible benefits of regularly scheduled play for children attending school:
Just as physical education and physical fitness have well-recognized benefits for personal and academic performance, recess offers its own, unique benefits. Recess represents an essential, planned respite from rigorous cognitive tasks. It affords a time to rest, play, imagine, think, move, and socialize. After recess, for children or after a corresponding break time for adolescents, students are more attentive and better able to perform cognitively. In addition, recess helps young children to develop social skills that are otherwise not acquired in the more structured classroom environment.
Restrictions or even loss of recess time is a national phenomenon, and the New Jersey law would have protected students from districts who felt the pressure to spend more time on academics and test preparation from stealing that time from recess — and yes, this has happened in New Jersey. Far from being something that the state’s lawmakers should not have bothered with, protecting children from well-intentioned but ultimately damaging policies is absolutely something that needed to be done. Mounting evidence suggests that this generation of schoolchildren are being pushed into more and more academic focus at younger and younger ages to their detriment. Even children as young as Pre-Kindergarten are losing play based learning that is developmentally appropriate and actually crucial to their long term social and academic well-being. Writing in The Atlantic, Erika Chistakis notes:
Preschool classrooms have become increasingly fraught spaces, with teachers cajoling their charges to finish their “work” before they can go play. And yet, even as preschoolers are learning more pre-academic skills at earlier ages, I’ve heard many teachers say that they seem somehow—is it possible?—less inquisitive and less engaged than the kids of earlier generations. More children today seem to lack the language skills needed to retell a simple story or to use basic connecting words and prepositions. They can’t make a conceptual analogy between, say, the veins on a leaf and the veins in their own hands.
New research sounds a particularly disquieting note. A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, published in September, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills. The researchers told New York magazine that overreliance on direct instruction and repetitive, poorly structured pedagogy were likely culprits; children who’d been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning.
That’s right. The same educational policies that are pushing academic goals down to ever earlier levels seem to be contributing to—while at the same time obscuring—the fact that young children are gaining fewer skills, not more.
This isn’t complicated. This isn’t disputable. Children need play. Very young children cannot learn without opportunities to play. The only flaw with the New Jersey legislation Governor Christie vetoed is that it doesn’t go far enough to protect our youngest school children from misguided efforts to increase their academic “performance” by denying them what they need to thrive. Our children need recess. They also need more play oriented learning premised on discovery and social interaction, and they need far less emphasis on tasks that look “rigorous” to adults but which stifle their development and steal time from genuine learning.
Governor Christie isn’t merely wrong; he is cruelly wrong. The “stupid” thing is the steady chipping away of what our children need. Perhaps the Governor could remember that as he is trying to score points with primary voters who are not interested in his candidacy.