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Martin: Rethinking Recess

When I was a child, recess was a cathartic explosion of energy. The jungle gym was a steel web silhouetted against the sky where we would climb, hoist, and stretch, before eventually jumping or falling off. The monkey bars, true to their name, were the domain of the most nimble and brawny of us. The merry-go-round inspired screams of joy, fear, and sometimes pain when it would eject passengers or leave hangers-on semi-trampled as it accelerated.

Recess was pretty wild back then, but playgrounds have since been childproofed, to an extent, with lots of spongy surfaces and zero-risk play equipment. In fact, we may have made recess so safe, perhaps dull even, that few complained when many schools cut it back in order to spend more time prepping students for standardized tests.

But much of the new brain research shows we need to move in order to learn. And with popular books like John Ratey's Spark as inspiration, there is a sort of recess renaissance right now.

Principal Adam Bunting of Montpelier High School gets it - he and his very talented teachers have invented "MHS Unplugged", a 15-minute period in the middle of the afternoon to take a creative break before returning to class.

This is how it works. Behavior Specialist Bill Laidlaw encourages students and teachers to propose and lead fun activities such as yoga, knitting, ultimate frisbee, or pick-up basketball. Then he lists the day's offerings on a white board in the main lobby for students and teachers to consult before heading off to have some serious fun.

When we think about the importance of relationships and relevance in learning, MHS Unplugged is pure genius. It gives the whole school community a chance to connect daily before returning to work. And MHS Unplugged is a little like Google's 20% Time in that it allows for creativity and individual pursuits - even if they're not on the test on Friday. Just like Google, the high school found that people set the bar high when given the freedom to pursue their passions. On any given day, MHS Unplugged includes Improv Theater, Beginning Sign Language, Meditation, Indoor Rock Climbing, Hip Hop Production, or even Quidditch.

And MHS Unplugged helps foster a climate of trust and community spirit too. On days when the weather's nice, you may even catch the superintendent playing a game of Four Square with some students over chalk lines in the parking lot.

Of course we find it hard to unplug nowadays, and so, on some days, you may find a lone teacher catching up on some correcting, or students sending just a few more text messages in the library too. But for the most part, you'll find in MHS Unplugged what researchers say all learners need, namely, to mentally shift gears, change our breathing, and recharge our energy in a way that allows us to honor our curiosity, connect with people, and experience well-being.

After all, sometimes the sound of learning is laughter.

Mike Martin is the Director of Learning for South Burlington School District and a Senior Associate with the Rowland Foundation.
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