I read this article recently and it raised again the question that has competing answers: What kind of education do our children need? The fact that our children are mainly educated in public schools in which parents have no input raises concerns as to how well they are being prepared for their futures. If you do any research into educational theory, you find that there are two major streams of thought. The first stream of thought is that our children are not spending enough time in class learning the sciences, math, and technology that they need in order to be successful in our brave, new world. The second stream of thought recognizes that children are spending too much time being told to sit still in school and are becoming unhealthy, overweight, and over-medicated.
I think it is safe to say that all parents want their children to be well-educated, but we are not all in agreement about what that means. There are some parents who are focused only on financial, career-oriented success, and then there are parents who want their children to be well-rounded, literate, artistic, mentally healthy children. The problem we have is that as parents unless we can afford to send our children to a private school that meets our personal requirements, we have to send our children to a public school in which we have no voice in how our children are educated. There is a push, yes another new push, to increase the amount of time our students spend in class. We have already gone through a major transformation of the lower grades since the mid-20th century, getting rid of the long recesses and accelerating the introduction of complicated math and science classes. But now education leaders are pushing for longer school days during the year or fewer summer vacation days in order to squeeze more learning into our children’s brains.
When I began school a very long time ago, I remember that we had a 30-minute recess in the morning, one in the afternoon, and an hour-long lunch during which we had another period of time to play. We started school about 8:00 a.m. and finished about 3:30 p.m., but during that time we had an hour-and-a half to engage in simple, unstructured play. Most experts will tell you that unstructured play and learning is essential to healthy brain growth. See http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/129/1/e204.full. Today, children are lucky to get one or two 15-minute periods of unstructured play time during the school day. Sometimes, structured physical education is substituted for recess time. Because of the push to increase the amount of learning achieved by young students, recess time is considered a waste of time.
I believe that a side effect of the push by education theorists to increase the amount of time spent focused on learning curriculum is the increase in the number of students medicated for ADHD. As mentioned in the article by Valerie Strauss published in the Washington Post which is cited above, according to the CDC the percentage of students diagnosed with ADHD has increased from 7.8 percent in 2007 to 11 percent in 2011. According to an article in The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, the number of students medicated for ADHD was negligible in the 1960’s, but that the numbers increased 600% between 1960 and 1975. See http://www.srmhp.org/0201/adhd.html. What is more concerning to the authors is that the numbers then increase an additional 700% in the 1990’s with the United States consuming nearly 90% of the world’s drugs, and that from 1960 to the year 2000, there is a 100-fold increase in the annual treatment of ADHD with medications. Somebody should be concerned about this. There is some concern amongst mental health professionals about why there is this increase in ADHD and there are studies trying to associate the increase of ADHD with foods, vaccinations, etc., but not a lot of talk about how unnatural it is to require our school-age and pre-school age children to sit still for 8 hours a day. An article by Grant Wiggins reblogged by me talks about how difficult and unnatural it is for ANYONE to sit still for 8 hours a day in the classroom. We as adults should be able to sit still longer and pay attention better than children, right? But think back to the last time you had to sit still for longer than an hour-and-a half without a break. Or how you felt after an 8-hour day of listening to speakers, even with the requisite 15-minute break morning and afternoon and an hour lunch. Exhausted. Then multiply that times the 185 school-days students have to endure, but subtract thirty minutes each day for lunch and add the stress of having to produce something for teachers in every class. Sounds like torture.
Professional educators are trying to figure out how to get more out of our students by making education more entertaining, but I think we need to start by recognizing the natural process of learning by play and incorporate that into our students’ day. Then we can start looking at how physical movement improves our ability to sit still for a period of time in order to learn.