By Kristine Sorensen

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — From the halls of Huston Middle School in the Burrel School District to the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, a group of seventh-graders is learning their opinions and voices can have a big impact.

They are working hard to get a state law passed that would mandate recess or a minimum 30 minutes break during the school day for kids in kindergarten through 12th grade. In fact, most other states have such a law.

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Their English teacher, Amanda Pagnotta, explains, “That’s something we emphasize through English Language Arts is that words have power, and you can use your power to make this great change in your community.”

Pagnotta said the recess law project started with an assignment to write a persuasive letter. Several kids wrote about the importance of breaks in school for mental health, and they have the research to back it up.

Studies show taking a break improves kids’ attention, productivity, memory and social skills and reduces stress. Yet, 40 percent of schools nationwide have cut back or eliminated recess programs, and 77 percent of school principals admit they withhold recess as punishment.

Huston Middle School seventh-grader Jack Lattanzio said one reason he wants a break in the day is, “Anxiety’s a big one. All that stress on you from all that work all day.”

Fellow seventh-grader Lillian Furnier added, “It would just be helpful to have this break in the day where we can get out some stress and energy so you feel regenerated.”

Middle school is not always easy. There are lots of social changes, academic stress, after-school activities, and then add COVID and wearing masks all day.”

Chloe Damico, also in 7th grade, said she’d like a break because, “I have asthma, but also I can’t breathe through the day. … just to get 30 minutes to take my mask off.”

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The assignment became a mission to help kids across the state. The students made a video, started a petition, wrote letters and met with their state Representative Bob Brooks to make their case.

KDKA’s Kristine Sorensen asked the students, “Was it nerve-wracking to present this in front of a legislator?”

Furnier said, “It was at first. But then once we met him and we started, it kind of got easier as we went along.”

Representative Brooks found their presentation compelling and wrote a bill to mandate 30 minutes of recess, study hall or break time for kids in kindergarten through 12th grade in Pennsylvania. It’s expected to go to the House Education Committee soon.

Sorensen asked Pagnotta, “Do you think the kids are learning that people will listen to them, even though they’re kids?”

She replied, “I think that we all should pay more attention to this generation. … They have such great ideas, and they know how to channel technology to get their message out there concisely and consistently that that becomes very powerful for getting their word across.”

If you’d like to join the effort and sign the students’ petition, the links are below. And for more stories of kids doing great things, click here.

Recess Law Petitions:

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One for students (ages 5-18)
One for adults (18+ and not in high school)

Kristine Sorensen