What role do we all play in children’s well-being?

OlympianSeptember 23, 2013 

The renewed emphasis on youth fitness is a strikingly positive trend. Current guidelines call for every child to be physically active at least 60 minutes per day.

Alarm bells have sounded about the increase in childhood obesity, and schools all over the country have responded by offering healthier food choices. The First Lady herself has made children’s eating habits a national focus. What else can be done in our schools to encourage activity and fitness?

‘Engagement’ is a hot new buzz word for gauging effective classroom instruction – but it could apply equally to the play areas of schools. It’s time for school districts to anticipate a federal push to evaluate elementary playgrounds – do they actually encourage interaction and exertion?

Have we so sanitized school yard games (i.e. no to dodge ball) and equipment (no tall slides, no climbing walls, no fast-moving run and jump apparatus) that children are more likely to just stroll around the perimeter of a playground and wait until the recess bell calls them back inside? Covered playsheds sound good on paper but don’t always function well in reality. Children know that they can be noisy, slippery places, often lacking walls to shield them from downpours.

What about school design now versus decades ago? A noticeable change has been the sprawled school design, with nary a stairwell to climb. Stairs could benefit students and staff – with an elevator for those who require it.

A quality running/walking track could be added to all elementary schools (a decent and maintained track, not just a water-logged sawdust trail). Native trees planted in strategic areas could encourage a love of nature and the building of a few forts and games of tree tag.

Gymnasiums in our elementary schools often do double-duty as euphemistically titled lunchrooms or cafeterias. This approach saves on initial school construction costs but is a huge denial of reality. Some local elementary schools serve breakfasts and lunches to several hundred children per day – without an actual cafeteria. Custodians spend countless hours setting up and taking down tables in the gym, and students dine in a less than charming place.

Most importantly, the gym is completely off limits for its original purpose (physical activity) during the minutes or hours it is used as a cafeteria. Can cafeterias be added on to existing schools – you bet – but the public would have to tax themselves to pay for it.

Parents can help by volunteering to be playground supervisors and mediators. Children need to learn to abide by accurate game rules, to take turns, and to solve problems as they cooperate and compete.

Parents can also make sure that the children they send off to school on a winter day have waterproof clothing and suitable shoes. One of the most common barriers to children (mostly girls) being physically active at school is the wearing of flip flops or sandals. Students need to be able to jump, climb, skip, and run without worrying that a shoe will fly off.

It will also improve everyone’s fitness and health if parents follow the medically prescribed guidelines for vaccines. Because of something called herd immunity, vaccinations of any one child improve the outcomes for all the other students in a school.

Vaccinating children is an outstanding way to demonstrate the concept of the greater good.

And sleep. It would be terrific if someday we could start school later for students and keep them later in the afternoon. I believe we could radically increase graduation rates and decrease tardiness if students didn’t go through four years (more if you include middle school) of boot-camp type sleep deprivation.

Haven’t you ever pondered this as you’ve seen students streaming out of our schools around 2 p.m.? Maybe extracurricular practices could take place before school?

We can devise school schedules that encourage adequate sleep and we can build facilities (indoors and out) that promote healthy eating and activity. Will we do it?

Pamela Boyd has a Master’s Degree in elementary education. She is a member of The Olympian’s 2013 Board of Contributors.

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