AURORA – With 770 students squeezed into a school building designed to accommodate just 425, classroom space at Aurora’s Elkhart Elementary School is at a premium.

Elkhart Elementary's new Peaceful Playground has well-marked areas for structured play.

But Elkhart Principal Katie Hartenbach has started viewing the school’s newly refurbished playground as the most valuable classroom space of all.

The reason: “Recess really allows students to focus for the rest of the day,” said Hartenbach. “It’s very important. They need to get out, get that fresh air, get their wiggles out.”

Beyond offering a place where youngsters can burn off youthful energy, the playground is more and more becoming an extension of physical education class at Elkhart.

Like schools across Colorado concerned about meeting the new state mandates for physical activity time for students, Elkhart is leveraging recess into something more than just a break from academic studies.

Since receiving a $4,800 grant from Lowe’s to install a Peaceful Playground last month, the school has aligned its P.E. curriculum to teach students games and skills they can readily put into practice on the playground during recess.

And thanks to a partnership with nearby Anthem College, the school has tapped college work/study students to act as playground coaches, helping to engage the youngsters in supervised active play.

“Our school is so huge,” Hartenbach said. “Having structure to the games and having defined areas on the playground really helps maintain control. Everyone on recess duty understands what the expectations are. We’ve developed much better playground supervision, and most students are now engaged in active games during recess.”

Local schools kicking up recess a notch

Across the metro area, more and more schools are taking recess up a notch, investing in playground upgrades, bringing in recess coaches, and moving recess to before lunch – so children don’t sacrifice nutritionally necessary lunch time in order to get a few more minutes of play time.

For example, Playworks, a California-based national non-profit organization that sends trained full-time recess coordinators into low-income urban schools, has established programs in 12 metro-area schools and expects to expand into four more by January.

Learning Landscapes, a program of the University of Colorado Denver’s College of Architecture and Planning, will dedicate 11 new playgrounds at DPS schools this fall, raising to 92 the number of playgrounds Learning Landscapes has transformed into colorful, well-designed, kid-friendly havens.

State bucks national trend

While an estimated 40 percent of elementary schools nationwide have eliminated recess, Colorado seems to be moving the opposite direction, embracing recess.

Denver's Cory Elementary is one of the latest to get a Learning Landscape playground.

Terra A. Gillett, of Thornton, serves as “recess advocate” for Colorado for USA IPA, the American affiliate of the International Play Association. The organization, which lobbies across the country for children’s right to play, has appointed such advocates in nearly every state to serve as watchdogs and to help guide parents to protect school recess if it is threatened.

Gillett, a Homeland Security specialist, acknowledges that while the loss of recess is a huge issue in some other states, that’s not the case in Colorado.

“We haven’t had a serious problem with this,” she said. “There was one school in Colorado Springs that was thinking of eliminating recess, but they dropped that idea. Then there was a little bit of an issue in Greeley, but that got remedied.

“I just haven’t heard of anything else going on in Colorado. I don’t know why, but it seems like the East Coast is where recess has been hit really bad.”

Quality of recess still varies widely

Andrea Woolley, executive director of Playworks Denver, said that while most elementary schools in Colorado do retain some form of recess, the quality and quantity of that recess can vary dramatically.

“Recess can be anything from 10 minutes to 40 minutes a day,” she said. “And the outcomes are different.”

Woolley said all the schools who brought in Playworks programs last year experienced a drop in disciplinary complaints, as well as a reduction in injuries sustained on the playground.

“Kids at Playworks schools get an average of 30 minutes of physical activity, but they’re also engaged in games more often, and they’re learning new social skills,” Woolley said.

“They’re learning leadership and empathy. And they’re learning new skills, like how to hit a baseball or how to kick a soccer ball. We make physical activity and games enticing, so instead of gossiping under a tree, the kids are getting engaged.”

Teachers at schools with Playworks programs report getting back roughly 24 hours of extra instruction time each year, she said, because the children come back more focused and ready to learn after they’ve had structured, active recess time.

Various strategies to fund the cost

Playworks can be pricey – $52,000 for a full-time recess coach, half of which the school must fund, while Playworks picks up the other half.

Aurora

“For each school, funding Playworks is a different journey,” Woolley said. “Some have it right in their budget and that’s the end of the conversation. Others pull some of it from other line items and have fund-raisers to cover the rest. At another school, the PTO raised the money. Each school does it differently.”

Peaceful Playgrounds is a less costly, more do-it-yourself alternative.

Rather than investing in actual playground structures and equipment, Peaceful Playgrounds provides blueprints and stencils for creating well-defined play areas such as four-square, hopscotch, Twister and other longstanding recess favorites. And rather than sending in outside recess coaches, Peaceful Playgrounds offers online training and webinars to teach school staff how to play the games and how to teach them to the children.

Elkhart is currently the only school in Aurora to have a fully functional Peaceful Playground, but four others – at Paris, Park Lane, Wheeling and Fulton elementaries – are soon to open. In addition, three outdoor and three indoor Peaceful Playgrounds will be raffled off to other schools soon, APS officials say.

“The kids are absolutely loving it,” said Hartenbach. “It’s very colorful. The first day, you’d have thought we had a brand new playground. We painted lanes for running and we had relay races. It really is spectacular.”

In addition, Elkhart got a supply of jump ropes, tether balls, beanbags, hula hoops, flying discs and other such playground necessities to put the newly stenciled game areas to proper use.

“It’s making our playground a much safer place,” Hartenbach said. “I love how it creates a systematic way to engage the kids in play. Most of all, it’s given me peace of mind, knowing our kids are safe. Because having so many kids out there, that’s our biggest worry as a school. I feel we have a good system for that now.”