By Carol Lloyd, Executive Editor
“I want to go to THAT school, Mommy.”
I remember it like yesterday. My fifth grade daughter slamming the car door and declaring her intention to attend a small private middle school while we were driving home from her shadow day. Not the spanking new charter school where all her friends were going or the old-fashioned public school just three blocks from our house. No, she had to pick the school that would cost us thousands, and thousands, of dollars a year. So… what exactly made this school worth the hole in the parental pocketbook?
Dutifully, she cited the intensive focus of the teachers on each kid, students that seemed to really care about learning and the rigorous math curriculum. What an awesome virtuous GreatSchoolsy kinda kid I thought! It wasn’t long before I signed on the dotted line and begin happily shelling out those monthly checks. Then another truth came out.
The big attraction for this school? More recess, more PE. Unlike many of the other schools where she’d shadowed, she later confessed, this one sent kids outside to play… a lot. In addition to PE every day, there were two generous recesses. She’d even added up the minutes of recess at the various school days to find the one that let her outside the most.
Are you kidding me????
Turns out my daughter had a point – though she was smart enough not to use it in school choice discussions with her mother. According to a new report from the Institute of Medicine, physical activity shouldn’t be treated like an extraneous frill or some extracurricular that gets whittled down for more back-to-basics drill and kill or budgetary hari kari. Instead, says this venerable scientific institution, sweating, running, jumping, and cavorting should be an integral part of every school day.
And not just a little activity, sprinkled throughout the week.The report, Educating the Student Body: Taking Physical Activity and Physical Education to School, recommends that schools help students engage in at least 60 minutes of vigorous or moderate intensity activity every school day. (The definition of vigorous? Try to catch your 7-year-old in a game of tag and you’ll have an intimate sense of its meaning.) For any parent familiar with the exigencies of teaching to standardized tests or the loss of enrichment classes like PE, this is far from common. My younger daughter at the local elementary school get one hour of PE a week, paid for by the PTO. According to the report, only half of American youth meet current evidence-based guidelines of at least an hour of vigorous or moderate intensity physical activity daily – and as all of us Tai Quon Do dads and soccer mothers know, the majority of this sweat isn’t being spilled on the school playground.
The report urges the U.S. Department of Education to include physical education as a core subject. The report suggests schools encourage any activity such as walking or riding a bike to school, as well as offering substantial recess, lunch, and frequent classroom breaks. Perhaps most important, such time for physical activity, says the report, shouldn’t be taken away as punishment. (Amen. How many millions of boys with ADHD or just plain ants in their pants are benched for recess every day because they misbehaved in class?)
The report mentions the vast and growing childhood obesity epidemic – which has tripled the number of obese kids since 1980 – but perhaps the most valuable message in the report is the notion that exercise adds to learning, not just healthy living.
As Harold Kohl, professor of epidemiology and kinesiology at The University of Texas School of Public Health and lead author of the report, put it: “Research shows that physical activity helps children think faster, improves their cognitive performance and helps them reach their academic potential.”
Next time it’s time to choose a school, along with looking for engaged students and great teachers, I’ll be adding up recess minutes right along with my daughter.