Ethan Dovi, a 10-year-old sixth-grader, was having a good time playing four square during his club period Tuesday at Randall Middle School.
“I like these clubs,” he said. “It’s a nice substitution for recess. You get a little bit of variety.”
Clubs are what fifth and sixth-graders at Randall now have in place of recess. And Dovi said that’s just fine with him. One day, he plays four square after lunch, then the next day switches to his other club, playground club, which is just a more closely supervised version of running loose on a typical unstructured recess.
There have been a lot of the other big changes in Cortland schools, such at the closing of the Virgil and Parker schools, the consolidation of the elementary-age students in the remaining three schools and transportation problems during the transition to the new system.
But the introduction of clubs in place of recess at Randall is another change that reshapes half an hour of every fifth- and sixth-grader’s day. That half hour, for previous fifth- and sixth-graders, was for recess — the same unstructured free time that younger students at the Barry and Smith schools still enjoy.
Academic research suggests recess is important to children’s development. A 2013 American Academy of Pediatrics report suggests it’s essential. However, both that report and a 2015 Stanford University study suggest recess must be properly structured. A well-structured break from classes leads to more students initiating games, more girls feeling engaged and improvements in how students felt, compared with unstructured time.
Starting in March, teachers led by Principal Jordan Ashley began thinking about a new approach to recess, more structured, but encouraging kids to try a wide range of physical and creative activities, while also mixing students socially with other kids they didn’t normally come in contact with.
One group of sixth-graders, for instance, can choose from the following clubs: morning news, playground, STEM, karaoke, art, walking and ukelele. The other half of sixth grade has slightly different options: four square, basketball, art, karaoke, playground and yoga. Fifth-graders are offered some different choices, including robotics club.
The students fill out forms indicating their preferences, then teachers and Ashley assign students to the various clubs, while trying to give students at least one first or second choice club. Students have two clubs per quarter that meet on alternating days, either before or after lunch.
Students are also required to sign up for new clubs each quarter, with new options to choose from each quarter, which helps encourage kids to choose activities they might otherwise avoid, Ashley said.
Ashley said the new system leads to “better supervision,” for students at an age “that usually comes with a lot of drama.” That pre-pubescent drama can translate into behavior problems, he said, and putting students in clubs gives them some structure, and gives them less free time to get in trouble.
In STEM club, one of the indoor clubs offered Tuesday, students used electronic tablets to make stop-motion animation.
Leo Queen and Kaidence Smith, both 11, made a short video of a toy car driving along a road they had drawn in black erasable magic marker, while on the other side of the classroom four other students made a stop-motion video with a box of magic markers.
“I like how it makes inanimate objects come to life,” said Colton Bishop, 11.
Michelle Pitts, who has a daughter in fifth grade at Randall, said she thinks it’s a great idea.
“In my opinion, in fifth and sixth grade, if you send kids outside, they don’t run around and play like they used to,” Pitts said.
Pitts thinks older kids tend to fall into less-active groups at an age when, in her experience, kids can get easily bored. That boredom, she said, can translate into bad behavior — “maybe picking on another kid.”
“At that age, especially without electronics, they have a really hard time finding a way to entertain themselves,” Pitt said.
She said she also likes the club program because students have to try each club. “It forces them to get out of their comfort zone a little bit,” she said.
Jessica Young, the sixth grade special education teacher, said she signed up to run basketball club because “I like physical activity.”
“I think it allows the students to express some of that energy they build up during the day,” she said. “It gives them structure, so they’re not out here just free-range.” As a result, she said she has already noticed a big drop in discipline problems.
Zero is how many Principal Jordan Ashley has recorded coming out of the club period this year. That would not be the case,he said, if the students has an unstructured outdoor recess.
The issue of unstructured free time — recess — has been under discussion by the district school board since the summer, said board member Donald Chu.
Some parents have expressed concern about the change away from unstructured recess, said Chu, but he himself is “kind of agnostic about it.”
“I’d like to like how it goes. I think all the board members have a concern it would be a loss of opportunity for the children to grow. It may be unfounded, but that’s our concern,” he said.
Board President Janet S. Griffin said at the Sept. 10 board meeting that she wanted further input from board members on unstructured free time — a subject the board policy committee will continue to consider in the context of the district’s existing wellness policy.