Why Johnny Can’t Run

Hi Folks! This is my piece that ran in last week’s Wall Street Journal. Have a good week (and some “vigorous activity”). – L.

The Importance of Child’s Play

by Lenore Skenazy

A new study of how preschoolers spend their days may make you want to run around screaming, which is apparently more than the tykes themselves get to do. After interviewing child-care providers from 34 very different Cincinnati-area centers—urban to suburban, Head Start to high income—researchers found that kids spend an average of only 2% to 3% of their day in “vigorous activities.”

Can you imagine that? Children spending 97% of their day not running around? It’s like a desk job, except with cookie time. Excuse me—apple time. When you consider that three-quarters of American kids aged 3 to 5 are in some kind of preschool program and a lot of them come home only to eat, sleep and go back again, this is beyond sad—it’s bad. Bad for their bodies, their brains, their blubber. Baddest of all are the reasons behind this institutionalized atrophy: The quest for ever more safety and education.

“Injury and school readiness concerns may inhibit children’s physical activity in child care,” writes pediatrician Kristen A. Copeland, lead author on the study, which will appear in next month’s Pediatrics but is already available on the journal’s website. Let’s take a look at both these concerns, the twin fears haunting modern-day childhood.

Fear of injury: The centers, the parents and the state regulators are all so worried about injuries that they end up steering kids away from play. They do this in part by only approving playground equipment that is so safe it is completely boring to the kids. As one child-care provider told the investigators, “We used to have this climber where they could climb really high and it was really challenging. Now we have this climber that looks cute, much cuter than the old one, but it’s not as high and . . . scary.”

“Scary” equals “fun” for kids. (It equals potential lawsuit to everyone else.) Faced with this pitiful excuse for a plaything, the kids started doing things like walking up the slide. But of course, that is verboten, too, because a kid could get injured! As several child-care providers told the authors, “the [safety] guidelines had become so strict that they might actually be limiting, rather than promoting, children’s physical activity.”

Uh, “might”?

Fear #2: Falling behind. The trembling triumvirate of child-care providers, parents and regulators also worries that kids must perform at a certain level when they reach school, so play time is sacrificed for academics. Some parents specifically request that their kids not participate in outdoor activities but “read a book instead”—an attitude that spans the economic spectrum.

The funny thing is, if you are really concerned about children’s health and school-readiness, there is a very simple way to increase both. It’s called playing.

Kids learn through play. When kids play, they’re not wasting their time. They’re learning everything from motor skills to social skills and numbers. Think of all the counting that comes with hopscotch, or with making two even teams. Those activities are a lot more fun than flash cards, but they teach the same thing: math. Kids playing outside also learn things like distance, motion, the changing of the seasons—things we take for granted because we got time outside. But many of today’s kids spend all their daylight hours in child care.

Then there are the social skills. The planning (“I’ll throw the ball to you, you throw it to Jayden”) and the compromise (Jayden always wants to go first), and the ability to pay attention. These are key lessons for anyone about to go onto another 12 years of education, not to mention another 50 years of meetings after that.

And on the physical side of things, kids outside literally learn how to move. Joe Frost, a professor emeritus at the University of Texas and author of 18 books on child’s play, has been watching for decades as dwindling time outside and increasingly insipid equipment got to the point where many 21st-century kids “are unsafe on any environment, because they have not developed the strength, the flexibility, the motor skills that come with being a well-rounded child.” They don’t even know how to fall safely, which makes them more likely to hurt themselves. So much for making kids safer by limiting their playground time.

As for the biggest health risk of all: 19% of kids are showing up at kindergarten already obese. They’ve started out on a life of couch potato-dom. Some don’t even know how to skip. “We’re seeing what we used to call ‘adult’ diabetes in children as young as 3, 4, 5,” says Dr. Copeland.

In striving to make our kids super safe and super smart we have turned them into bored blobs. Fortunately, the remedy is as simple as it is joyful: Just see the playground the way kids do. Not as an academic wasteland. Not as a lawsuit waiting to happen. Just the very best place to spend a whole lot of time.

What’s Wrong with This “Let’s Move!” Ad?

Hi Readers — What’s wrong with this commercial for the campaign, “Let’s Move” ?

Well, first of all, it assumes it is OUR JOB, as parents, to keep coming up with one-minute exercises that will some how magically take the place of an entire CHILDHOOD spent running around. Secondly, it doesn’t even remotely suggest that maybe kids can entertain themselves or be active of their own accord. Thirdly, all this “moving” lasts about a minute. So if you want your kids to move for even half a measly hour a day, you have to come up with 29 more clever little exercises to sneak into their schedule.

If we really want kids to get moving, we have to get them outside again. Playing. With each other, not us. Is that too radical an idea for “Let’s Move” to put forth? — L

The More Kids Get Moving, The Better They Do In School

Hi Readers — I was just going to tweet this, but it’s such a cool story, I’m providing the link here. A high school in Naperville, Illinois is holding gym class first period for some kids who struggle with academics. The idea is: Switch on the body and the brain switches on, too. And even in the classrooms there are bikes and balls. (Stationary bikes, that is. Otherwise, I’m not quite sure how much learning the kids would stick around for.)

The program has been running (so to speak) for five years and the students in it are now reading 1.5 years ahead of grade level, according to the story.  So instead of chipping away at recess, as some schools are doing to make extra time for test prep, maybe we should start chipping away at test prep to make time for bouncy balls and square dancing. — Lenore

Dear Mrs. Obama: We Can’t Fight Obesity Without Going Free-Range

Hi Readers: Here’s an almost perfect opinion piece by Dan Haley in Sunday’s Denver Post about how Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program is a great idea — get kids outside, exercising more — but it’ll never work. At least, not until we start a Free-Range Revolution (not that he calls it that):

…first we need a public service campaign to tell parents it’s OK for their kids to play outside. I know parents who constantly wring their hands over how it’s no longer safe for kids to play outdoors. But crimes against children have been declining since at least 1993, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Some 800,000 kids are reported “missing” each year, but only about 100 of those cases can be classified as “stereotypical kidnappings.” The rest typically are runaways and custody issues.

We should still tell our kids to be wary of strangers, to be smart about where they go and who they hang out with. But I’d venture to guess it’s no less safe outside now than it was in the 1970s. We’ve been scared indoors by a few horrifying, high- profile killings that play out on 24-hour news channels and relentless “stranger danger” campaigns.

Unfortunately,then Haley goes on to monger a little fear of his own, saying that when kids are inside they are sitting ducks for internet predators. (For more on how this danger has been exaggerated, please see my piece in The Daily Beast.)

But his main point is well taken. To say,  “Play like we did!” while also saying, “But you’ll probably get abducted if you do, and even if you aren’t, you should probably spend more time inside doing homework and test prep anyway, or you’ll never get into a good college, so your future is grim,” is enough to drive any kid to drink…a sugary soda or two. — Lenore

Study: More Gym + Nutrition Ed Doesn’t Slim Kids Down (And I Think I Know Why)

Cool entry on the “Alas, A Blog” blog   questioning the conventional wisdom that holds: If only kids had more gym, health and nutrition classes, they’d all slim down. An eight-year study of about 1700 kids gave half of them a greatly enhanced gym/nutrition/health curriculum (and healthier cafeteria food), while the other half got the same old same old.  Kids were measured in third grade and again in fifth and surprise (there goes the grant!), there was no difference in the two groups as far as weight was concerned.

The “Alas” blogger rightly asks whether weight should matter anyway: If the group with the gym curriculum was more active, happy or fit, that certainly seems more important than whether they could squeeze into smaller undies. But MY point is that I’m not surprised by the outcome, because it’s not just gym that makes a difference in kids’ lives. It’s what kids do OUTSIDE of school, too.

BEYOND GYM

When principals forbid them to ride their bikes to school (and I’ll post a another Outrage about that soon),  when  parents are afraid to let them go to the park, when their friends are not allowed to venture out the front door, what can kids do before or after school except hang out inside?

And what generally happens there? They’re not jogging in place while poking around YouTube. And if they’re watching TV, cue the dancing Pop-Tarts! Even organized sports programs don’t offer the insurance of exercise (or fun). When my kids were playing on our local Y’s baseball team, they stood around for about 60 of the 90 minutes, waiting in the outfield for a ball that never came, or waiting for their turn at bat that felt like it would never come, or eating the snack that always DID come, because we parents were required to schlep it. (Why was snack a requirement, anyway?)

In short: We can program as much health as we want into the curriculum, and as the sister of a former high school health-ed teacher, I say: Yay! Let’s do it! I’m all for health class. BUT until we start letting kids get out there and organize their own games of tag, and kick ball and roll down the steep, rocky hill (okay, maybe not that one — Free-Range has its limits), they’re going to be inside. Who’s dancing and prancing and getting all that healthy exercise in  there?

Looks like the Pop-Tarts.  — Lenore, who thanks Kelly Hogaboom for sending this story in.  Kelly’s blog is right here!