Recess, R.I.P.

Is there — gasp! — snow on the ground? Is the playground — heavens! — muddy? In Lower Merion schools these days, it only takes the slightest excuse to keep little Madison and Connor cooped up inside

My daughter came home from elementary school today, and once again she’d spent recess indoors. The reason du jour? I warn you, it may take a forensic meteorologist to determine this on many occasions. Today there was snow on the ground. It was a gorgeous sunny day, well above freezing, but any sign of frozen anything on the ground and those kids don’t get a breath of fresh air. This isn’t unusual in Lower Merion. Almost any aberration from ideal weather will do; damp ground, any temperature approaching freezing, chance of rain, even mud are considered sound reason to keep these kids inside. And indoor recess does not mean they get to run and play in the gym. No. The gym is unavailable during recess times, so instead they sit in their classroom and play board games. Weeks, or this winter, a month can go by with no outdoor recess. [SIGNUP]

I get passionately upset about this. In my opinion it’s institutionalization of our children, and it’s a counterintuitive way to expect them to produce academic results. Kids need to release energy and get oxygen to their brains. It’s hard for most children to stay still and focus under any circumstances, let alone for eight hours without movement.

I tried to take up this cause. I really did. Amazingly enough, most parents didn’t know anything about the recess situation. Not only was it news to them that our kids rarely go outside, they didn’t know that our children only get one recess a day. And further, they didn’t know it had been quietly cut back from 30 minutes to 20 with the No Child Left Behind Act when, I understand, the school district decided it needed more academic time. The other parents cared. They said. Sort of… Not enough to actually do anything about it.

I went to Lower Merion school board committee meetings, where they were, paradoxically, focused on staff wellness and fitness. I appealed to the principal and the Home School Association president and even spoke at an HSA meeting, which is so not my thing. I wrote impassioned letters, which are my thing. I got nowhere. Eventually I got tired of fighting alone and just shook my head and muttered under my breath instead.

So what’s the deal with all of this? I suspect it could be the school’s obsession with their fields remaining pristine. Or it could be fear of lawsuits should some child slip on snow, ice, wet grass or mud? God knows that nobody is supposed to get hurt in childhood anymore. Is it that some neurotic parents don’t want little Dakota to get cold? I see some of these kids at my daughter’s school, and they’re dressed appropriately for Friday night at a nightclub, but not for actual winter weather. Maybe their parents don’t like them to have exercise or fresh air. It’s incredibly unfortunate if they’ve managed to ruin it for the rest of us.

Our children are the victims in all of this. Not only because they’ve lost some serious bragging rights in adulthood, like “I walked to school uphill two miles in both directions,” and “I remember the time that Madison knocked me out with that snowball.” While some parents may recoil in horror at the thought of our children enduring such atrocities, others may feel these are character-building experiences that we look back on fondly later in life.

The main reason they’re victims, though, is because of the most obvious issue of all at stake here: our kids are unhealthy. Childhood obesity is at an all time high. Kids are suffering from diabetes and heart issues. They don’t get fresh air or exercise. Gee, I wonder why? The government and school districts are working to get (relatively) healthy food into school cafeterias, carting out the soda vending machines and deep fryers. But nobody is talking about exercise. One hour of physical education a week is not enough. Especially when they take the bus and have homework that keeps them busy till dark. Twice-daily recess outdoors in most weather conditions, and indoor recess in the gym , is a step (no pun intended) in the right direction. A school district-initiated health movement (more puns!) would be another.

So when will the common sense backlash begin? Parents, we should be harassing our elected school board officials about letting our kids play and enjoy the snow, run and jump on the playground, get a bit muddy (sorry custodians and recess supervisors) and be children again. All parents should be instructed to dress their kids appropriately for the weather. Or at the very least, willing parents should be allowed to sign a waiver to release the schools from responsibility if our children slip on the wet grass or take a snowball to the forehead. Then they’ll have some good hard luck stories to tell their own kids instead of seeing the “snowstorm of the century” accumulation from the classroom window.

KELLY ROWELL lives in Bryn Mawr.