My son is in kindergarten. He’s 5 years old. He’s bright-eyed and has boundless energy, in all the ways you’d want a 5-year-old to have. Sometimes, he also finds it difficult during the school day to keep his hands to himself. Some days, he has trouble sitting still at circle time. These things have caused him to be branded as someone who “has trouble in school.” This is a kid who loves to leap and dance, not do worksheet after worksheet. I’m sure that more physical activity would help him, but guess how much physical activity he actually gets during the average school week? At 5 years old, he has 15-20 minutes of recess a day, one gym period a week, plus a dance and movement class.
What ever happened to recess, the kinds of recess I remember as a kid?
When I was in first and second grade, I went out for recess three times a day. As I got older, it ramped down and by middle school I had just one recess. Gym happened twice a week, from first grade all the way through high school. We played dodge ball. Tee-ball. Football. Even golf. This was the late 80s and early 90s — before the age of high-stakes testing.
I have evidence that more physical activity would benefit my son. During a particularly rough week a couple of months ago, one of his teachers started taking him to the hallway a few times during the day and letting him run laps. Or helping him do standing push-ups against the wall. Or walking his legs up the wall while he balanced on his hands. All good, strength-building activities that also helped calm him. Unfortunately, his teacher didn’t have the time to do that on a regular basis.
My son is not an outlier in this respect. I see other kids in his class who seem just as pent-up and wired as he is, and I’ve talked to parents who share my concern about their lack of activity.
I can’t help but compare his kindergarten experience with my own. I spent half-day kindergarten time learning my alphabet as well as skills like tying my shoes and playing well with others. But my son and his classmates are in school for a whole day, most of it spent in literacy and math lessons. Playing a game of pretend is not a priority. Nor is developing hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, or just running off energy in the playground.
Actually, these seemingly less-essential skills are vital to our children’s mental development. A piece in The Washington Post suggests that the rise of ADHD in America may in part stem from the fact that our young children are not being allowed to move enough in school. This causes them to fidget, which makes stressed-out teachers unhappy, and leads to labeling the kids as ADHD.
The report’s author, Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist, found that many children have underdeveloped balance systems, especially when compared to kids who grew up in the 1980s. This affects their sensory systems, and their attention spans. They can’t sit still in class because they’re not getting the movement they require on the playground or the sports field.
In a separate paper, Dr. Gregory D. Myer, a sports medicine specialist, calls on schools to institute frequent breaks for activities that would build core strength, resistance, agility, and cooperation. This isn’t a waste of time, Dr. Myer told NPR. Let kids do something active for five or ten minutes, and you’ll get a focused twenty or thirty minutes out of them at their desk. Keep them in their seats all day, though, and their minds will get exhausted as their bodies get antsy. We can’t expect kids to be able to focus like adults. Our bodies, our energies, and our needs are different.
I think back with fondness to my first few years of school, which were characterized by fun and excitement, not stress and repression. Will my son feel the same? He’s already talking about reading levels – “I’m a level D now!” — and assessments.
We talk about “educating the whole child,” but too often that doesn’t include the child’s body. American schools need to make more time in the day for children to be active, to run around, to play and release the pressures of learning. They’ll return to the classroom energized, their brains full of oxygen-enriched blood, their senses stimulated and ready to focus. They’ll also be physically healthier (childhood obesity rates remain alarmingly high in the U.S.) and learn the value of fitness, which they’ll bring with them into adulthood.
Bring back more frequent recess! And let’s make gym something that happens at least twice a week. Our kids will be healthier, happier, and smarter because of it.