It’s no secret that in recent years, Americans have become increasingly sedentary. And though the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids engage in no less than 60 minutes of physical activity a day, and First Lady Michelle Obama has launched a full-out campaign to combat childhood obesity through education about diet and exercise, on the whole, American kids have seen physical activity in school noticeably decreased, especially since the launch of No Child Left Behind in 2001. Since then, school districts have cut time in both P.E. and recess to make room for more instructional time to prepare for standardized tests. Add to this policy pressure the decreasing financial support for many public school programs and the cultural trend of increasing (and arguably unwarranted) concern for children’s safety, and the prospects for kids’ opportunities for play look bleak.
Now, the physical benefits of play are mostly obvious and undeniable: active kids are generally more robust: their muscles, bones, and vascular systems are stronger. Their motor skills are better. They are less prone to debilitating diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer, and those benefits can last through to adulthood. Children who are physically active are more likely to be physically active as adults.
But I’d like to talk a little more about some of the more intangible benefits of play. These benefits are especially compelling to those who care about kids with neurological or learning differences. An active child is less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. Studies have shown that active children have higher self-esteem and a stronger sense of well-being than their sedentary counterparts.
And physical activity appears to be necessary for the brain to function optimally. Physical activity and play have been shown to improve cognition, attention, and executive function. These children have been shown to have better problem-solving abilities, and (remember NCLB?) they show improved standardized test scores! In fact, according to Sergio Pellis at the University of Lethbridge in Canada, “countries where they have more recess tend to have higher academic performance than countries where recess is less.”
By the way, physical activity and play are close cousins and often come together. But an interesting story on NPR recently pointed out an important distinction. Scientist Pellis says: “The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain…And without play experience, those neurons aren’t charged.” Changing the brain, he says, requires completely unstructured play. The function of play, says Jaak Panksepp of Washington State University, “is to build … social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways.” Therefore, while P.E. class is important for learning a number of things, free play, whether it involves vigorous exercise or not, can’t be overlooked – it builds social skills and problem-solving skills especially.
Here’s what we do at our school to promote physical activity and play every day. Experts, like those from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Institute of Medicine, think all schools should be using these strategies!
1. We incorporate structured physical activity. Cloverleaf kids go on a hiking expedition every week. These outings often involve opportunities to play sports and always require kids to navigate the conventions of group dynamics.
2. We provide ample time for unstructured play. Our kids start out on the playground every day before settling in to do their academic tasks. At other times throughout the day, students return to the playground or spend time in our sensory room.
3. We allow students to have frequent breaks during academic instruction. An increasing body of research suggests that frequent short breaks during instructional time increase concentration and reduce stress – stress by and large impedes learning and retention. Our goal is to help students self-regulate, getting to know themselves well enough to know when they need to step away.
4. We plan lessons that incorporate movement and play directly into academic instruction. Sarah O’Neill and her colleagues at Queens College, CUNY have discovered that play-based interventions are especially beneficial to kids with ADHD. Though worksheets may sometimes have their benefits, we know that early elementary kids in particular are likely not developmentally able to connect tasks set on worksheets to the abstract principles they are meant to demonstrate. We aim for multisensory, hands-on work that keeps kids focused and interested.
For further reading, start with my sources:
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2013). Policy Statement: The Crucial Role of Recess in School. Pediatrics,131(1), 183-188.
Braniff, C. (2011). Perceptions of an Active Classroom: Exploration of Movement and Collaboration With Fourth Grade Students. Networks: An On-Line Journal for Teacher Research, 13(1), 1-6.
Editorial: Exercise and Academic Performance. (2013, May 24). The New York Times, pp. 2-3. Retrieved August 8, 2014, from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/25/opinion/exercise-and-academic-performance.html
Hamilton, J. (2014, August 6). Morning Edition [Radio broadcast]. Washington, DC: NPR.
Spiegel, A. (2008, February 21). Morning Edition [Radio broadcast]. Washington, DC: NPR.
Sue, G. (2013, April 1). The Worksheet Dilemma: Benefits of Play-Based Curricula. KB Education Solutions. Retrieved August 15, 2014, from http://www.earlychildhoodnews.com/earlychildhood/article_view.aspx?ArticleID=134
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