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Davis, California

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Column: Recess, running… performance?

When No Child Left Behind passed under the Bush administration, schools suddenly received tremendous pressure to raise the reading and math capabilities of all of their students. This led a number of schools to examine their curriculum and courses and decide what they could cut in order to devote more time to “teaching the test.”

The end result was that many schools cut and/or reduced time spent on recess and physical education, as well as arts, social studies and science. This is quite simply a terrible idea.

As many of you have probably heard, obesity is becoming a major problem in the United States. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 17 percent of children and adolescents aged two to 19 are obese, almost triple the rate in 1980. Why is this happening? Because of childhood habits. Cutting recess and PE classes to keep up in math and English is only going to make obesity an even greater problem.

But this isn’t the main reason I’m criticizing the school system for cutting recess and physical education.

A 2009 study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences tracked Swedish men born between 1950 and 1976. The study examined the physical fitness levels of the participants and their intellectual and cognitive performance. Researchers found that cardiovascular fitness is positively associated with intelligence, meaning the more fit the participants were, the more intelligent they were.

This wasn’t just a constant level of intelligence either. The study found that as the participants’ fitness levels changed, so too did their mental fitness, saying that “cardiovascular fitness changes between age 15 and 18 y. predicted cognitive performance at 18 d y.”

This suggests that the more active students are the higher their academic performance will be. And yet schools are cutting physical education and recess, the two main things that promote higher fitness levels.

By removing student outlets for exercise, a school hamstrings its own goals of promoting academic development and excellence, while hampering the purpose of No Child Left Behind, the main reason why they’re doing it in the first place. Not only that, as mentioned before, it promotes unhealthy inactivity in the student population as a whole, resulting in high obesity rates, poor health and social stigmatization.

Beyond that, the normal outlets of energy that students use become restricted. Kids are normally very hyperactive. If they don’t have regular access to exercise and activity, chances are they’re going to release their energy in class, which causes them to act out, disrupting the class and usually getting the student in trouble.

So what should schools do instead of cutting physical education and recess? Should everything just revert back to how it was before?

Yes and no. As I recall, PE classes in elementary school were every other day, and in high school there was only a two-year requirement. Recess should never be cut and physical education classes should become as common a fixture in the daily life of a student as an English or math class.

To implement this, I suggest that firstly, students be required to take PE classes every day of the school year from, if not K-12, at least third — when a child’s motor skills are more developed — through 12th grade. This will keep the students active and their cardiovascular fitness levels fairly constant, if not improving.

Secondly, there should be a stratification of some sort, in or with PE classes. As it is, students of all different kinds of athletic ability are thrown together. This results in inefficiency — especially during timed runs — when a significant section of a class will finish performing an athletic test and have to wait for the rest of their peers to finish before the class can continue.

Putting overweight students with more athletic ones can lead to discrimination and judging as well, possibly resulting in overweight and obese students rejecting exercise entirely.

By having students divided into groups based on their capabilities and/or athletic preferences, there will be less time wasted and students with lower fitness levels will face less discrimination and social stigmatization, encouraging their participation in physical activities.

Cutting physical education and recess from the curriculum does students nothing but harm. At best, it causes behavioral issues and encourages obesity and at worst, it negatively affects the performance and mental capabilities of students.

Neither of those are acceptable results, and schools need to look into alternative ways of covering test material without affecting the students.

DERRICK LEU would love to hear your opinion — contact him at derleu@ucdavis.edu.

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