By Sara Baldwin
Carmel Clay Schools has a history of high ratings and academic achievement. Recently, Carmel scored an A+ in the Public Schools category on data analysis website Niche.com. The high public school rating helped land Carmel the title of “Best Place to Live in America,” as reported by Town & Country Magazine.
To keep the focus on academics, CCS requires only 15 minutes of recess as a district-wide policy. But some Carmel parents have expressed concern that elementary and grade school students need more unstructured play time in their school day.
Lisa Washburn, whose children attend Smoky Row Elementary, moved to Carmel in 2012. She was shocked to learn that her son would have only a 15-minute recess. That same year, she began attending school board meetings and rallying fellow parents to ask for a longer recess. She received pushback from the administration at the time.
“There is a growing body of research that shows that recess is important for (children’s) emotional and physical well-being and helps them process learning,” Washburn said.
The 15-minute recess is not unique to CCS, but it is short in comparison to neighboring school districts, such as Zionsville Community Schools and Westfield Washington Schools. Both districts’ recess times vary by school, but the majority of students receive a 30-minute recess at the elementary level.
Continuing the path to academic success through Social Emotional Learning
Superintendent Nicholas Wahl joined Carmel Clay Schools in the fall of 2013. He brought with him the concept of Social Emotional Learning and the Whole Child approach. Wahl believes in bolstering academic success by focusing on the needs of the whole child, including student engagement and social awareness. The idea of lengthening unstructured play time is in line with Wahl’s methodology.
“When I came (to Carmel) there was, and still is, a very strong emphasis on student achievement and academic performance,” Wahl said. “We still have that same value structure. All I’ve done is ask that we look at the whole child. The well-being component is so important to feeding into the student achievement.”
Wahl learned of Washburn’s previous campaign to extend recess and invited her to meet with him to discuss it.
“(Dr. Wahl) is very interested in the benefits of unstructured play at ages even older than elementary,” Washburn said. “I think he’s bringing a really good balance in the school district.”
Under Wahl’s leadership, teachers are now allowed to allot extra recess time if they feel it is needed. CCS has implemented structured “brain breaks” throughout the day, which are short classroom breaks where students partake in a physical activity like Zumba. Some students can also receive “sensory breaks” with objects such as fidget cubes. Other unstructured activities include makerspaces that provide equipment like 3-D printers, student “choice time” after lunch and open gym.
Teacher empowerment vs. mandated change
Wahl’s openness to alternative learning has resulted in district-wide change, but there has still not been a longer mandated recess, nor does he plan to impose one.
“I happen to embrace the concept of empowering people to make decisions in real time,” Wahl said. “The teachers are empowered. If they think that kids need extra recess, they do it.”
There is still a top-down initiative involved in the decision-making process. School principals have the power to initiate change. According to parents who attended Smoky Row’s kindergarten orientation March 27, Principal Kim Barrett said that longer recess would be built into next year’s schedule but did not specify a length. Barrett did not respond to requests for information about the extension as of press time.
Parents like Morgan Heraly hope longer recess becomes mandatory for more Carmel Clay Schools.
“We toured a few of the CCS schools and they are definitely moving in the right direction. They are wonderful schools.” Heraly said. “But we chose to send our daughter to a private school, partially because we feared that 15 minutes of recess was not enough time for a high-energy child.”
Changes could be coming. In 2018, the district will have an elementary program evaluation where parents, teachers and administrators will review best practices and make recommendations, with the potential to address unstructured play. Wahl would evaluate the committee recommendations and then present them to the school board to address policy change.
Washburn said she appreciates the changes already being made under Wahl.
“At this point, my great hope is that parents will get informed and follow up with their children’s teachers and principals to make sure that they are taking advantage of Dr. Wahl’s invitation to give their classrooms more recess as they need it,” Washburn said.