Here is a new, counterintuitive post from pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom, author of a number of popular posts on this blog, including “Why so many kids can’t sit still in school today,” as well as “The right — and surprisingly wrong — ways to get kids to sit still in class” and “How schools ruined recess.” Hanscom is the founder of TimberNook, a nature-based development program designed to foster creativity and independent play outdoors in New England. This first appeared on the TimberNook blog, and I am republishing it with permission.
By Angela Hanscom
I was in the middle of feeding my baby boy, when the phone rang. “I need your help,” the person on the other line said. It was an old friend of mine. “Our school is making it mandatory that the children walk laps during recess time.” She went on to tell me that their recess was only 20 minutes long and that walking a few laps at the start of every session was now encroaching on their already extremely limited amount of free play during school hours. The physical education teacher had implemented the new policy in order to get children more active.
I honestly believe that the school has the best of intentions. They truly want to help the children. With an epidemic of obesity among children, many schools are searching for the best way to help children become more physically fit and healthy. However, we are going about it all wrong. If we truly want children to be strong and physically adept, we need to start allowing for more opportunities for free play and less adult-directed movement activities. Here’s why:
Exercise is Not Meaningful to a Child
Do you remember recess growing up? What are your fondest memories of this time? I remember playing pick-up games of soccer with the boys, jumping off swings, racing other children, and playing pretend for a good hour with friends along the edge of the woods. I also remember running laps around the track, but this was for physical education class — not during recess. When I was growing up, recess was our opportunity to choose what we would like to play. It was the one period where we could let loose and have a break from instruction and the adult world.
Walking laps isn’t meaningful to most children. It is an activity, with the main purpose being exercise. With recess sessions being cut extremely short, children are already given limited time to enjoy meaningful play experiences — the type of experiences where children can decide what they want to play, who they want to play with, and move their bodies the way nature intended.
For some children, recess may be their only opportunity to play outdoors with peers on a daily basis. It is their chance to make friends, to relax if they desire to relax, to spin in circles and get dizzy if they need to, to yell and holler to other friends to come play, to belly laugh, to test their limits, to be brave, to regulate their emotions, and to simply be kids. Let’s not take this small window of playtime away from these children. Even if walking laps only takes 5 or 10 minutes – it is still robbing them of this precious outdoor playtime that appears to be dwindling as the years pass.
Free Play Benefits the Neurological System
A child’s neurological system is designed to naturally seek out the sensory input it needs on its own. For instance, if a child is spinning around in circles, it is because they are ready for that sensory input. Another child may not need or want to spin. In fact, it may make them sick to their stomach. Maybe this child needs to have some quiet time to dig in the dirt. A third child may be jumping off a small rock over and over again, because their body is ready for this challenge. The child is the best indicator on what type of movement they need at any given time.
How do we respect children’s need to move in different ways? By simply allowing them plenty of time and space for free play. It is during free play, where children move and challenge their bodies in new ways, constantly testing their limits and getting to the next developmental level. When we take away their time for free play and instead replace this time with adult-directed exercise, it limits the type of movement experiences these children receive. Some children may benefit from the walking. However, others may have needed to go upside down, or swing, or jump, or run, or balance, or roll at that time. They will be missing out on that sensory input they so desperately needed at that moment.
As adults, we may always feel like we know what is best for children. A child’s neurological system begs to differ.
Walking a Few Laps Won’t Change the Cardio system
Lastly, most children in elementary school don’t need formal exercise. They need more opportunities for free play in outdoor spaces, where they can naturally challenge their muscles, mind, and senses. Children get plenty of exercise simply by playing outdoors. Most of us never needed to do Pilates, yoga, strength training, or any other special exercise program growing up. We got our exercise by simply riding our bikes around the neighborhood, climbing trees, racing each other at recess time, creating dams in the stream, and helping to rake the leaves so that we could jump in the piles when we were done.
Even if our top priority is not for children to make friends, engage the senses, solve their own problems, to have fun, and make lasting memories during recess time – we are still missing the bar. If the ultimate goal is for our children to have a healthier cardiovascular system, than walking a few laps at the beginning of recess time isn’t going to cut it. In order to make these changes to the heart or the rest of their muscles for that matter, children need to be participating in a heart-pumping activity (which honestly, is best done through meaningful play experiences) for at least 30 minutes. Walking laps may not even be vigorous enough to bring the heart rate up for some children. And most recess sessions only last 15 to 20 minutes. Therefore, walking laps, or any other adult-directed exercise program during recess time falls short of making our children “healthier.”
If we truly want to foster healthy development, we need to start simply giving children more time and space to play.
The answer doesn’t lie in exercise, but in free play.