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At least 30 minutes of recess is now required at Illinois elementary schools. Here’s what it’s meant for kids.

On a winter's day, 5th grade students at Gregory Elementary School in Rockford run around outside at recess. It’s a scene most people are probably familiar with from when they were in elementary school: kids in puffy winter coats playing all sorts of games and walking around with their friends.

Of course, there are the classics like basketball. And some games maybe more unique to the creative kids at Gregory Elementary.

“Sometimes we play a game where somebody is the king or queen, or royalty of some sort,” said 5th grader Jude. “I have [been the king] once and I got to teach them Pig Latin. We usually try to resume the storyline [the next day]. If we can't resume the original storyline, we just start another.”

Kristine Leider is the principal at Gregory Elementary. She says her students get 30 minutes of unstructured play every day. This year, that’s mandatory in Illinois for kindergarten through 5th grade.

“They get 20 minutes outside for recess," she said, "and then throughout the day they get an additional 15 minutes. So actually, we're doing 35 minutes."

The 30-minute recess law passed in 2021. Surprisingly, the recess requirement was somewhat divisive. It only passed 60-52 in the Illinois House of Representatives. Most of the “nays” were from Republican lawmakers, but a handful of Democrats voted “no” too.

That’s mostly because they were concerned about two things. One, will schools be able to staff that much recess time? And two: will schools be able to fit that extra time into an already very-structured school day without sacrificing academics?

Leider says they’ve been able to trim out the time from transitions between subjects. As for staffing, it’s always all-hands-on-deck at schools but she says that their lunch aides help out for recess.

Despite the real challenges fitting more recess into the bell schedule, Leider says she thinks the extra 10 minutes is a positive, especially after the past few years.

“They are sitting at their desk doing academics for quite a bit of the day,” she said. “So, giving them that little time to be kids, play, and talk to each other -- I think it's beneficial for them social-emotionally, since we lost so much of that during the pandemic.”

Erin Salberg is the principal at McIntosh Elementary in Rockford.

“It definitely was hard to find [the time]," said Salberg. "Like, we're not allowed to just do like a 10-minute extra section of the day."

But she says the extra recess time is helping students build social skills and work through challenges. They cut the 15 minutes out of their half-hour “WIN” time, where teachers work with students on social-emotional skills like conflict resolution.

“I think anytime kids can play and explore and just have time for themselves is great," she said. "And I wish our school day was longer so that we could not feel like we had to give up things that were important to us as far as WIN time goes. But, overall, I'm happy about it. I'm happy kids have time to just do kid things.”

Kid things like drawing or magic tricks!

“I go to someone, they pick a card, they look at it,” says another Gregory 5th grade student. “I shuffle the deck again, I grab it without looking at what it is. And I turn the deck like doo, doo, doo. And then I go through the cards, and I pull one out from the bottom. And it's always their card!” Her friend chimes in, “Yeah, she’s really good!”

If you’re worried that 5th graders spend their recess on TikTok, the 2021 recess law forbids students from using deviceslike cell phones and tablets. It also prohibits schools from taking away recess as a punishment, which was pretty common before.

As for the worries that recess cuts too much into learning time, research has shown that physical activity can actuallyreduce anxiety and help kids stay focused when they’re in class.

That’s not to mention that recess can be up to 70% of a child’s weekday physical activity.

And now, recess is over. The 5th graders line up to head back inside. Thanks to the 2021 law, they'll be back outside tomorrow to play more basketball, do more card tricks and pick up the storyline from yesterday’s games.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.