In 2015, the New York Times reported that over a four-year period, the number of students in New York City public schools being referred for occupational therapy rose by 30 percent and that similar increases were reported in other cities. One of the reasons offered was the increase in the number of autistic students who had been mainstreamed into regular classrooms. Another reason was the increased emphasis on academics in early-childhood education, which has led to a lessening of physical activity.
This post looks at a related reason: When kids are allowed to play in school, the things they are allowed to do are restricted in an unhelpful way. This was written by Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist, author of “Balanced and Barefoot,” and the founder of TimberNook, a nature-based development program designed to foster creativity and independent play outdoors in New England. She has written a number of popular posts on this blog about the importance of movement and unrestricted play for young children, and how schools in many places have restricted physical education and recess and are making it harder for kids to move, literally, as much as they should.
In this new post, Hanscom writes about the restrictions that schools are putting on kids when they are allowed to play — and why “the very movements we are restricting children from doing to keep them ‘safe’ are the exact exercises” she thinks children should be doing for healthy psychological and physical growth.
By Angela Hanscom
“Can I say, ‘School is a social injustice?’ ” I waited for the 10-year-old boy to crack a wry smile or to chuckle after he said this. He didn’t. He was dead serious.
A few months ago, we were interviewing children on their recess experience. As a young child, recess was my absolute favorite “subject.” Gym class was a close second. Kids today are telling a different story. This same boy noted, “We have monkey bars, but we aren’t allowed to go upside down on them. They think we are going to hurt ourselves. I think I’m old enough to try going upside down.”
An 8-year-old girl said, “We have woods, but can’t go anywhere near them. It’s too dangerous.” The kids went on to tell me they weren’t permitted to swing on their bellies or spin in circles, for fear they may get dizzy. “When we have standardized testing, we don’t get recess. The teachers give us chewing gum to help us concentrate on those days,” another child announced. One 7-year-old girl said, “When it snows, we can’t touch it with our foot, or we have to stand by the teacher for the rest of recess.”
I knew recess was shortened, but I had no idea the magnitude of restrictions we were placing on our children until we sat down and truly listened to what they had to say.
The thing is that the very movements we are restricting children from doing to keep them “safe” are the exact exercises I’ve used as a pediatric occupational therapist to help treat the increasingly “unsafe” behaviors seen by veteran teachers in the United States. Teachers are reporting increased aggressiveness at recess, decreased ability to regulate emotions of anger and frustration, constant tripping, frequent falling and decreased ability to attend in the classroom.
In order to treat the aforementioned problems, therapists move children in all different directions. There is a very good reason why our clinics have ample suspended equipment. We encourage children to go upside down, to jump off objects, to climb to new heights and spin in circles to give them a better sense of body awareness. All of these rapid and changing movements shift the fluid around in the inner ear to develop a strong vestibular (balance) sense. A unifying sense, the vestibular system supports good body awareness, attention and emotional regulation. These skills are fundamental to learning in the classroom.
Just like our muscles, if the vestibular system is neglected due to repeatedly restricting movement, it can weaken over time. This is one reason why many adults claim that they were able to tolerate rides as young children, but now feel sick or nauseous on the Ferris wheel or Tilt-a-Whirl. Many of us aren’t moving in a variety of ways like we did as kids. It is rare to find adults rolling down hills, hanging upside down or climbing trees on a regular basis. Unless we participate in a regular dance class or something that offers a great variety of movement, our vestibular system changes as the fluid in the inner ear thickens. As we age, if we don’t stay active, we become more prone to falls.
The problem? We are seeing this already in little children! Children are spending less time outdoors than ever before, and this is changing the development of their muscles and senses. They are becoming a generation of “unsafe” children — reports of clumsiness and falls are on the rise in schools. As adults, at least we have a choice if we’d like to take a movement break. Children don’t always have that luxury.
Lets face it, keeping children sedentary for most of their waking hours is causing harm. Think of the percentage of time children are found sitting in chairs doing classwork, homework, and being driven from one activity to the next. When they do have free play, their movement experiences are significantly limited. We say things like, “Get down from there, you are going to get hurt.” And, “Stop spinning, you are going to get dizzy.” We keep children in an upright position for the majority of their day. This does little to stimulate and challenge the senses. Its no wonder our kids are fidgeting like crazy, crying at the drop of a hat and slumping over their desks like rag dolls.
How do we help wiggly, increasingly unsafe children? The answer lies in the ability to move — a basic human right. Elementary children need at least three hours of active free play a day to maintain good health and wellness. Currently, they are only getting a fraction of this time.
This means everyone needs to be on board. No more blaming the teachers or parents. This is a societal problem. It’s no longer okay to say, “our hands are tied” or “we don’t have time.” We need to make time. It is also not enough to stick children on bouncy balls or put peddles on their desks. They need opportunities for real authentic play experiences with other children; to move their body the way nature intended.