1 of 12
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Inversion hangs over the Salt Lake Valley near the mouth of Parleys Canyon Friday, Jan. 18, 2013.

SOUTH JORDAN ­— Bethany Merrill is a typical 10-year-old kid: Recess is her favorite part of the school day.

She's mastered the art of swinging, scored a number of soccer goals and loves finding herself breathless in a game of tag.

But Bethany hasn't been outside for recess in nine days.

"I miss playing in the fresh air," the fifth-grader says as she rotates to the next indoor activity, yoga, in the gymnasium at Daybreak Elementary School.

Since the recent bout of freezing temperatures and Utah's notorious inversion, schools across the state are making calls on when it is appropriate to keep children inside for recess.

There is no nationally set temperature that determines when schools default to indoor recess, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Utah school districts follow state health guidelines for poor air quality, but beyond a general marker requiring that children stay in when it's 19 degrees or below, each school is left to determine when indoor recess is necessary.

"That decision varies from principal to principal," said Granite School District spokesman Ben Horsley. "We have a wide range of socioeconomic statuses throughout the district. The temperatures may just be 25 degrees outside, but we may have a population of students lacking the proper outdoor attire. "

Each school has its own process. In Canyons School District, that decision is left to school performance directors.

"They have decided that 22 degrees is a little too cold," said Jeff Haney, district spokesman.

In the Jordan School District, school administrators work with community councils comprised of parents to determine what is acceptable for outside recess.

"It's our way of helping parents have a voice," district spokeswoman Sandra Riesgraf said.

Play experts have long advocated the necessity of recess for children. There is overwhelming evidence that shows that recess is essential to child development during school, said Chris Conard, director of Playworks, a Salt Lake City-based nonprofit organization that partners with elementary schools to improve physical activity at recess.

"Recess is actually how your brain relaxes and soaks in more information," Conard said. "It's a critical break in the day that recharges and re-energizes."

Recess, he said, is one of the most critical times of the school day for kids to get their energy out and get that release.

"It is vital to developing social skills, cognitive skills and physical skills," Conard said.

Principals and teachers across the state are having to get creative with their indoor recess activities.

"We're on our ninth day of indoor recess since the break," said Daybreak Elementary Principal Doree Strauss. "We were streaming movies day after day, but the kids were sluggish and losing focus. They needed movement and activity."

Strauss introduced a rotation system that included yoga, puzzles, Zumba, crosswords and board games.

"It gives kids a way to move and play and be a bit noisier than they can be in the classroom," Strauss said.

"When we have to be inside, fun activities make it easier to sit still and concentrate," Bethany said.

For Sarah Moore, a Daybreak Elementary sixth-grader, inside recess allows her to do things she can't do during class.

"I have had fun drawing," she said.

Some days, Robin Farnsworth will set up stations with Legos, board games, art and cup stacking for her third-grade class at Woodrow Wilson Elementary in Salt Lake City. Other days, Farnsworth will move desks to the edge of the room and project an iPad dance application called CFIT.

"We have a blast learning a new hip-hop dance, Latin move or yoga routine," she said.

But ultimately, indoor recess cannot compensate for fresh outside air and a spacious playground.

"Today, it was announced that recess would be outside, and the kids were cheering," Farnsworth said Tuesday. 

E-mail: rlowry@desnews.com