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Too Cold for Recess?
The case for not cancelling recess -- even in cold weather

By Lydie  Rashchka-supervisor and teacher mentor in the Yonkers public school system

As New York City emerges from a spring cold snap, parents unwrapping their children from winter clothes may find something unexpected underneath: a new layer of fat. During this year’s long and frigid winter, many of the city’s public elementary schools canceled outdoor recess, instead keeping students inside where they watched videos (and snacked). At my son’s school in Manhattan, children stayed indoors—where they killed time in the gymnasium—through much of April, too, because of the rain. Wouldn’t these children have been better off playing outside?

The standard justification is that students tend to get sick on cold weather. But there’s little evidence that cold weather itself causes illness (unless you’re talking about frostbite or hypothermia, which can be prevented with proper attire). It’s exposure to sick people in cramped quarters (like school classrooms) that’s bad for your health. Not to mention what sitting indoors all day does to your metabolism; no wonder childhood obesity is on the rise. And, of course, there are the behavioral problems: children get antsy without fresh air.

Yet many of the city’s school principles canceled outdoor recess when the temperatures merely hit the freezing point, or it there is the slightest precipitation. What happened to that famous New Year bravado? The city’s Department of Education does not have a formal regulation on when to cancel outdoor recess, leaving it up to individual districts and schools, but the unstated policy stands in stark contrast to the rules of schools around the country, particularly in places where extreme cold is a fact of life. In parts of North Dakota, the cut-off temperature for outdoor recess is zero; in Anchorage, it’s minus 10; and in one Wisconsin district it’s a wind-chill factor of minus 15. The Anchorage school district puts its philosophy succinctly: “Any child well enough to come to school is generally well enough to go outside.”

So why are New York public school students treated so delicately? The decision to go outside isn’t simply based on the weather. When I taught elementary school several years ago, the decision was affected by pressure from teachers and their aids who themselves didn’t like going out in cold weather or sorting out schoolyard fights, and parents who were constantly telling us—despite the science—that their children were getting sick from the cold.

Schools shouldn’t be making these decisions based on such vagaries. Why doesn’t the city’s Department of Education set up a policy that makes outdoor recess mandatory based on a reasonable standard—say, when the temperature hits 10 degrees or it’s raining heavily? Though the cold weather may be on its way out, it isn’t going away.