By Kate Lowenstein
and Ramika Smith
We have a suggestion for how to spend some of the billions of dollars that Boston will likely save by not hosting the Olympics: How about we invest even one percent of that into the bodies and brains of our children by ensuring they get ample physical education and recess time?
Instead of spending billions to have elite adult athletes playing sports in our city, we can at least give our own Boston Public Schools kids the chance to run and play here.
Most parents of kids in the city’s public schools assume their children get recess every day, as we did when we were kids, but the reality turns out to be quite different. While the CDC recommends that all children get at least 60 minutes of vigorous exercise every day, and at least 30 minutes of school-time physical activity, many of our schools allow for as little as 20 minutes, if that.
Over the past two decades, accelerated by No Child Left Behind’s focus on testing, the tendency has been to reduce or eliminate physical education and recess. And our school administrators and legislators look the other way without recognizing the overwhelming amount of evidence that shows the significant academic and mental health benefits of these physical activity breaks.
In January of 2009, the journal Pediatrics published a groundbreaking study of 11,000 third-graders, comparing those who had little or no daily recess with those that had more than 15 minutes of recess per day. The findings show that children who have more recess time behave better in the classroom and are likelier to learn more.
In January of this year, The Boston Foundation released a report: “Active Bodies, Active Minds: A Case Study on Physical Activity and Academic Success in Lawrence, Massachusetts.” The report found that only 15 to 20 percent of Massachusetts children are meeting the 60-minute daily recommendation for physical activity and only 10.2% were meeting the school-time recommendation of 30 minutes.
It also underscored what we already know from many other studies; that children in schools that provide an adequate amount of time and opportunity (and encouragement) for daily physical activity in the form of recess, gym classes, and movement breaks, have higher MCAS scores in both Math and ELA.
Not to mention the substantial behavioral health benefits. Multiple studies show that movement and exercise are one of the core ways to soothe a traumatized/anxious brain.
The average school day in Boston is six hours but for many kids, with a 45-minute (or more in the winter) bus ride on either end, those days can be eight or even nine hours. A mere 20 minutes of recess is simply not enough to provide a child with the physical break they would need to maintain focus and continue learning in that time.
It is nonsensical to extend the school day, as is now planned, while at the same time we have severely limited the very thing that would allow those long days to achieve the intended goal of increased learning. More time in school is not better for learning if it becomes an endurance test for the students. Recess and physical education are as integral to a long school day as are Math, Science, and English.
Today, providing recess is only recommended but not required for Massachusetts schools. Studies show that only in states that actually pass a law requiring schools to allow for a certain number of minutes of physical activity do kids end up actually getting that time.
We need one of those laws. While the Boston school system does have a wellness policy requiring recess, there is no minimum amount of time allotted, no enforcement mechanism, and it is still routinely cancelled or withheld for disciplinary reasons. Unless children are a physical threat, the last thing that will improve their behavior is taking away one of the few proven things that could help them with their impulse control. There are plenty of other forms of discipline that are not detrimental to a child’s mental health.
Some might wonder, “Can’t children play after school?” The extended school day, plus time spent on the school bus or commuting, means that our children do not get home in time to do anything other than eat dinner, finish homework, and go to bed. That small 20 minutes of recess, often eaten up by walking to the playground or being told to stand in line, is all the playtime many kids get.
Our First Lady has made childhood obesity, which is at epidemic levels in our country. and the “Let’s Move” campaign one of her central causes, yet it is in the hands of our legislators and school administrators to make sure this activity happens during the school day.
As parents, we have listened to what the pediatricians and schools have asked us to do in order to help our children succeed academically. We have followed the new guidelines for healthy eating, restricted screen time, enforced regular bed times. We read to our kids every day, we’re involved in their schools and schoolwork. But five days out of seven, we can’t meet our children’s needs for physical play.
We rely on the schools to recognize that vital need and respond to it. The reality is that while recess and gym class and sports remain a foundation in suburban schools, our city kids are yet again getting the short end of the stick.
As we move on from our Olympic bid, let’s not take our focus off that goal of benefiting the residents of Boston. It would only take a fraction of the money planned for the Olympics to provide for physical education and 30 minutes of recess per day for our kids – but the long-term benefits to their academic success, and physical and behavioral health, are impossible to put a number on.
Kate Lowenstein is the mother of a rising 2nd-grader and 4th-grader, and Ramika Smith is the mother of a rising 4th-grader, in Boston public schools.