My teenaged daughter has become used to periodic lectures in P.E. and Health class about the spectre of Type II diabetes. "You have to exercise an hour a day!" the teachers exhort the students, as they put them through yet another round of physical fitness assessments.
Too late, too late, too late.
All through my daughter's elementary years her recess time was limited and the focus was on the push, push, push for better standardized test scores. Parent requests for more recess were met with responses about "college and career ready."
All through the years of skill and drill mandated by No Child Left Behind, opportunities for movement went down while, outside of school, children spent more time inside on devices and less time playing outside. All the while parents were working more hours to try to get by and falling back on fast food choices in their exhaustion.
It all adds up.
Now...when I was little...(you knew that was coming) each day in elementary school looked like this:
Walk to school. Play on playground until bell rings. Class time. Morning recess. Class time. Walk home for lunch. Lunch. Walk back to school. Play on playground until bell rings. Class time. Afternoon recess. Class time. Walk home. Change into playclothes. Play outside.
Look at the amount of physical activity embedded into each day. The necessity for movement was a given. And it supported our learning, all through those formative years. We probably had gym class twice per week, but that was only a small part of the picture. Our days were structured with movement in mind.
I think that our P.E. teachers do a lot these days to encourage the joy of movement. The trend towards giving kids of all abilities different ways to have fun moving their bodies is a good one. But physical activity is not for gym class alone. If we want our children to move, and to be healthy in the long term, we have to invest in more recess from their earliest years. We also need to work with parents to encourage more walking and more family activities that involve outdoor play.
I have a friend whose mom didn't take him to church as a young child because she thought it would be too difficult. Then, when he was 13, she decided he was old enough. She made him get dressed up and start attending church. He hated it.
"You take any teenager, make him put on a necktie and do something he doesn't want to do--I just think it was too late for me," he mused. "I didn't see the point."
Waiting until kids are in middle school and threatening them with Type II diabetes is not going to work. We have to put our money where our mouth is. And I don't mean foisting structured calisthenics sessions on already over-scheduled children. I mean endorsing and supporting authentic, child-directed physical play as a part of a healthy school experience.
Who knows? Not only will our kids be physically healthier, we just might see improvements across the board.
Ready to give it a try?
(Graphic by Ruth Williams)