There is more to school than reading, writing or math

In his Remarks on the Youth Fitness Program in 1961, John F. Kennedy proposed that, “The Strength of our democracy and our country is really no greater in the final analysis than the well-being of our citizens.” That was more than fifty years ago, and the healthcare paradigm in this nation still reflects a preference for a pound of medical intervention over an ounce of preventative measures for illness or injury.

The decades-long trend of increased childhood obesity, and the chronic maladies associated with it, should cause alarms to sound across this country. Even President Kennedy’s proposed minimum of “fifteen minutes of vigorous activity daily” was inadequate to the task of raising fitness levels. Our failure to address this issue will likely result in a generation of adults needlessly dependent on an already-strained healthcare system.

The ancient Greeks maintained that strong minds are improved by strong bodies.

Basic survival requires the presence of clean air, pure water, nutritious food and shelter from the elements. In order to thrive, the offspring of sentient creatures also require access to time for “play” that nurtures survival skills and general fitness. Feline “play” is ultimately a rehearsal for the hunt. For human beings, “play” is crucial to the awakening of imagination and intellect. 

Both structured and unstructured play time are absolutely essential to the physical, social and intellectual growth of children. Adequate time for play is critical to their physical and mental well-being. Thirty minutes a day at aerobic threshold is a bare minimum to maintain health. So, why are we still stuck with a fifteen-minute minimum recess for children in a place called “school”? Do we have a crisis in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)? Or, might it be that children simply have insufficient outlets for pent up energy? 

We no longer allow children the time to be children. The time comes soon enough to set aside childish things…

For starters, in the dozen years since the enactment of the pernicious No Child Left Behind legislation, school schedules have been compelled to strictly narrow the curricular focus to reading and math skills. Schools are devoting ever more of the school calendar to test preparation and test administration because their very survival depends on achieving “acceptable” results on standardized assessments.

Instructional programs, especially in schools serving the socio-economically disadvantaged,  have therefore experienced reductions in enrichment programs, physical education, recess, and even nap-time for pre-Kindergarteners. Such regimentation ignores the needs of the whole child.

In the current climate of test-based accountability, it will be no small task to allot time in the school day to provide an opportunity for children to achieve the recommended minimum of 30 minutes at aerobic threshold required to maintain optimal human health. So far, only a handful of states have achieved that goal.

We ignore national goals for physical fitness at our own peril.

Further Reading: It works in Texas!


[The original version of this Commentary appear as There’s more to school than Reading, Writing & Math in the Prince George’s Sentinel on July 01, 2015.]

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