Letter to Champaign Board of Ed about play and school day length

Champaign CUSD 4 is in contract negotiations with the Champaign Federation of Teachers, and the Board of Education wants to extend the day by 50 minutes starting in fall 2023. Justification for this change is the passage last summer of the Right to Play recess bill which requires 30 minutes of play for grades K-5 in public elementary schools every day. IL Families for Public Schools sent a letter about this to the CUSD 4 Board of Education. Letter here and text below.

To the Board of Education:

Illinois Families for Public Schools is a statewide grassroots advocacy organization. Our vision is for every family in Illinois to have a well-resourced local public school. We organize and mobilize parents and other public school supporters across Illinois to advocate for policy change that defends and supports public schools.

The Right to Play recess law, PA 102-0357 was an initiative of IL-FPS that we worked to pass in the IL General Assembly last year with a coalition made up of not just families but also teachers, environmentalists, disability rights advocates, social workers and community organizations.  This bill became law with the help of parents and caregivers around the state who wanted to see time for unstructured play in their schools, including in the Champaign Unit 4 Schools.

The requirements of PA 102-0357 do not justify or require a lengthening of the school day in Champaign elementary schools. 

The Right to Play requires 30 minutes of play in grades K-5 for all kids in public schools. Crucially, it says that play time counts towards the school day’s minimum of five clock hours. Play time is learning time because play is learning for children. This was an important part of the law not just because play is part of a child’s educational experience, but because it means that schools can incorporate this time without needing to lengthen the school day, and so it means no additional labor costs for schools.  

This is in fact what has taken place at schools around the state, including Monticello, Mahomet, Urbana, and Springfield, and schools in CUSD 4, where 30 minutes of play time has been scheduled into the existing school day.

According to ISBE data from 2019*, third graders in Champaign CUSD 4 had on average 4.5 hours of core course minutes a day, including 140 minutes of reading instruction and 70 minutes of math. In a 6.25 hour day, if schools had no recess at all previously, shifting just 15 minutes from each of math and reading to play would leave 1 hour and 45 minutes for lunch and special subjects each day.

Around the world, 15 minutes breaks every hour are common for elementary school years (Finland, Japan, Poland, etc.) And historically, US elementary schools also typically had three breaks during the day, including two shorter recesses and a longer one at lunch time (or an hour for lunch that was split between recess and lunch or allowed children to go home altogether.)  It has only been since the late 1980s that schools started cutting back on recess.

The truth is that ever more minutes working on academic subjects can only have diminishing returns when there aren’t sufficient breaks for students to restore and recharge. Academic time on task has never been higher in elementary schools, but our NAEP scores as a state and nation have barely budged in the last decade.

Regular breaks from structured instructional time improve behavior without a decrease in academic performance because it results in an increase in attention and on-task behavior and a decrease in fidgeting during academic time. Play can help dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline driven by inappropriately punitive responses to minor misbehavior, especially important for students disproportionately targeted for such responses: Black students, students of color, low-income students and students with disabilities. Providing adequate time for unstructured play is an educational equity issue.

In summary, a 6 hour 15 minute school day can and should include at least 30 minutes of free play required under state law. Play is learning for children; this is now recognized in the school code, and districts, including Champaign, do not need to add time to comply with the law. They need to integrate play into their curriculum and school culture. 

We urge the Board of Education to carefully consider what the structure of the elementary school day is like already and ensure that there is a balance of time on strictly academic minutes with activities that support the whole child for their students.


*Minutes per day in subject areas for elementary schools does not appear in more recent data sets.