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Neag students improve recess at inner city school

by Janice Palmer - June 18, 2007

Recess – which, researchers say, improves student attentiveness, health, and social skills – just got a whole lot better at Batchelder Elementary School.

That’s because of the efforts of four UConn teacher education students.

Neag School of Education students review plans for the playground at Hartford’s Batchelder Elementary School.
Neag School of Education students review plans for the playground at Hartford’s Batchelder Elementary School.
Photo by Janice Palmer

During a recent ceremony held at the Hartford elementary school, the students from UConn’s Neag School of Education presented the principal and his students with new recess equipment, a renovated playground, and a recess guidebook.

“As the play areas were being painted, our students became more and more excited,” says principal John Laverty.

“We are so appreciative of what these Neag School students have been able to accomplish on our behalf. Our kids now have more than a couple of rubber balls for recess, and a much better place to channel their energy appropriately.”

Just as important, he adds, is the guidebook created by the Neag students, which he plans to copy and supply to each of his staff members.

During the past academic year, the UConn students, all juniors, were assigned to Batchelder – one of the Neag School’s Professional Development Centers for training future educators.

As part of their clinical experience, the students were required to identify an issue and help the school address it by developing an action plan. They called their initiative “Recess Renovation: Teaching Students to Play.”

“We observed that recess had become a problem for students and for teachers,” says Brian McDermott, a junior from Middlebury.

“There was hardly any equipment, and students needed to learn new games.”

So McDermott and classmates Annie Haylon of West Hartford, Thomas Mariani of Somers, and Ryan Quinn of Stonington set out to change that.

In constructing their plan, they sought the expertise of Neag School associate professor Jaci Van Heest, an exercise scientist, whose research focuses on childhood obesity and exercise.

“Recess is a vital part of the school day, and contributes to a child’s well being,” says Van Heest.

She says a report from the U.S. Department of Education’s Center for Education Statistics shows that 14 percent to 18 percent of U.S. children in grades 1 through 6 get only 15 minutes or less of recess a day.

“Children need physical activity to run off bottled-up energy, so they return to their classrooms refreshed and more attentive,” she says.

In addition to the health and fitness benefits, Van Heest says that during recess, children develop physical skills, social relationships, and the ability to negotiate and work as a team.

A number of studies suggest that U.S. schools, under pressure to improve student achievement scores, are reducing or eliminating recess, in order to increase time spent on academics.

Van Heest is encouraged by what is going on at Batchelder. “Principal Laverty is committed to improving recess for his students and has been very supportive of our students,” she says.

Van Heest volunteered to design the new play area. She identified appropriate activities for elementary school-aged children and then drew up specifications for four distinct play areas to help organize recess.

After surveying the teachers, the Neag students created an equipment wish list; but the school had no funds available to cover the Recess Renovation costs.

The students were determined to turn their plan into reality, however.

They raised $5,000 in donations from several groups, including the UConn Chapter of the Connecticut Education Association and the Neag School Dean’s Fund.

Dean Richard Schwab says he decided to invest privately raised funds in the project because of the Neag School’s long and productive partnership with Batchelder as a Professional Development Center.

“Principal Laverty and his teachers have been incredibly supportive in training our students and collaborating with our faculty on research,” he says.

“Just look at these four juniors. They demonstrate the initiative and dedication we hope all of our graduates bring into Connecticut’s classrooms. Preparing high quality teachers is a collaborative effort, and John Laverty and his team at Batchelder Elementary School are extraordinary partners and mentors.”

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