It’s often discussed amongst parents and teachers that our public school children aren’t getting enough exercise to work out their “kid energy.” We older folks remember having multiple recesses, while simultaneously wondering why obesity is becoming a problem for our country’s youth.
P.E. and the liberal arts classes that teach children creative thinking — a trait every bit as valuable as math skills and English rules — are now referred to as “specials” at my 9-year-old son’s school, and rotated throughout the week. This means the kids only get one of these types of classes each day. When I was a kid, we had daily P.E. and music or art multiple times per week.
I recently went to my son’s school to eat lunch with him, where the kids are allotted exactly 20 minutes to file into the room, wait in line to get their school lunch, or find a table and start eating a home lunch. I almost always pack my son’s lunch because he tells me this gives him more time. Never enough time to finish his lunch, though. He always brings the unfinished part home to eat after school.
The sweet little girl who sat next to me was trying to quickly eat the apple on her lunch tray. She told me, “I always try to eat as much of the apple as I can before they give the 5-minute warning, then I hurry to try to eat the rest of the lunch.” I watched her throw away half of the uneaten apple, with the rest of her unfinished lunch. She wanted to eat the healthy apple. She was unable to eat it. This is ridiculous.
I know you’re probably thinking at this point, “Well they’re kids… they’re probably talking rather than eating during the 15 minutes they have in which to eat after settling down at a table with their lunches.” And I thought this too, since my son always brings home part of his lunch uneaten. That’s why this visit was so shocking for me.
Because, no. It turns out my son’s cafeteria has two teacher’s aides who walk around with microphones to silence the children who’re constantly reminded to quiet down, and rushed to eat, with the last 5-minute warning being a period of complete silence. I watched a table of 8 kids try to eat their food, and only one of them was able to eat the entire meal. (He was shoveling food into his mouth, which seems like an unhealthy habit to force a child to establish.)
As we sat in silence, with the kids trying finish their lunches, I wondered why I was there. It was the opposite everything my childhood lunches had been: we’d had time to socialize and chat with friends while enjoying a meal. We were always able to finish eating, with time to spare.
As the microphone-carrying women admonished the children who dared to talk while eating, the room felt militaristic and creepy. And despite the “prison guards” with their amplification devices, most of the children still didn’t finish their meals.
The kids then ran outside for the one recess they get per day. That’s right, you heard me: one chance to exercise, one chance to work off some energy so they might be better able to sit still in class. That’s it. One.
My son is officially “twice exceptional,” which means he is of gifted intelligence combined with atypical neurology. He is diagnosed with ADHD, and on an extremely low dose of ADHD medication, which makes me wonder if, were he allowed to have more recesses and daily P.E. like we were as kids, he might be able to handle the rigid structure of the public school system without medication.
We’ve tried to take him off his medication, and he can’t handle it, however. He has the energy of a joyful puppy, and he needs chances to burn it off in order to focus. But he’s not getting any guaranteed chances beyond that one recess.
I don’t understand why I can see that more physical activity would help all children – male or female – do better in school, yet school officials don’t seem to get this. Every country ranking above us in global education prioritizes physical activity as an important tool for helping kids learn, and it’s proven to work, yet we, the overweight Americans are moving in the opposite direction.
There are 3 boys in his class, my son tells me, who are allowed to stand while doing work. While I applaud his teacher for offering a solution to this problem, I don’t understand why my son’s school doesn’t recognize that so many children having excess energy and causing classroom disruptions could be drastically reduced by giving the kids more opportunities to exercise.
My son knows 2 other boys on ADHD medications, and boys tend to (very much in general) be more immature and therefore hyperactive/impulsive than girls, but this need for more exercise and creative free play time applies to girls as well, obviously.
I was a little girl with both-undiagnosed gifted intelligence and ADHD, for example, who sat bored and restlessly staring out the window. Teachers wrote on my report cards that I “daydreamed too much in class,” yet even then, I was getting much more daily exercise and liberal arts classes (that we’re slowly eliminating and calling “specials”) than today’s youth.
I feel that my son, all our sons, and all our daughters, are not being given enough chances to move around, and be silly, goofy kids during the school day.
I’m dismayed that my son’s school lunch time feels like a boot camp meal.
And most of all, I’m extremely displeased that so many parents of hyperactive kids are forced to medicate our children to boost their immature prefrontal cortex development and executive functioning… simply so they can attend an unrealistically restrictive public school.
I understand the physiology behind ADHD and don’t deny that my son has a neurological developmental delay; but considering that a minimum of 10-11% of the population has ADHD (this number is only the percentage of the officially diagnosed), I think it’s time for the schools to change the way they teach our children. And I’d like this change to start with more physical activity. More free play, socializing, and recess, so our kids can better learn when it’s time to sit still and focus.
Why? Because I shouldn’t have to take my son to a behavioral therapist, a psychologist, and feed him scary medications just so he can fit into a rigid and intellectually inhibiting system that sets up smart, inquisitive, energetic kids for failure, no matter how hard they try.
My son is advanced enough that we were offered the chance to move him up a grade, but because his ADHD neurology makes him unable to conform to the behavioral expectations of a higher grade, this is not an option for us.
So he is bored, and when un-medicated, disrupts the other children by talking out of turn and not sitting still. He then gets in trouble and feels like a bad kid for something he can’t physically control, so the cycle of low self-esteem and anxiety progresses… along with our therapy expenses.
Much like the misfit toys featured in the popular “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” TV special we see every winter break, my son doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. There is no place for him in the current public education system, yet when I discuss homeschooling him, he cries and begs me to not do it, because he’s so gregarious and outgoing, and would miss his friends.
Because we can’t afford private school, we are officially out of options.
Structure is important and necessary, lest the classrooms become chaotic, and I applaud all good teachers for their patience and everything they do. This is not a teacher-bashing piece, but instead a cry for help aimed at the public school system.
In short: My child doesn’t attend a military school, but it feels like it, and I think that’s wrong. Our young public school kids are being forced to conform to what I believe are near-adult behavioral expectations, and this causes them – and their parents – unnecessary anxiety, and hampers the educational process.
If anyone reading this has the power to change the direction of public education, please consider refocusing on more opportunities for physical exercise, such as multiple daily recesses, and more emphasis on music, art, and physical education classes. These were once important parts of our public education, and most of us who remember having them don’t understand why they’re being taken from our children.
The next time you’re contemplating how to fix our obviously broken and underfunded public educational system, giving children more opportunities to be kids every day would be a great starting point. They’ll have the rest of their lives to be adults, after all.
*Cool artwork at top copyright CJS 2011 a.k.a. guttergoo at DeviantArt.