Robbi Giuliano teaches her fifth-grade class as they sit on yoga balls at Westtown-Thornbury Elementary School in West Chester, Pa., in 2013. (Matt Rourke/AP)

On July 8, 2014, I published a post titled “Why so many kids can’t sit still in school today” by Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist. Ever since then, the idea has struck a chord with readers around the world, still drawing a big audience along with some of the follow-up pieces Hanscom wrote.

Why did that story have such resonance? Because standardized-test-based school reform has overemphasized math and reading instruction and test prep to the exclusion of other things, forcing young children to sit in their chairs for hours at a time, often without a real break, even though many kids aren’t ready to do that (if, indeed, young people of any age should have to). The result, as Hanscom has written, is that too many kids fidget, lose focus and act out, with some diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder even when they do not have it.

To be sure, some schools have realized the damage this is doing to children. One is Eagle Mountain Elementary School in Fort Worth, which has started sending kids out for unstructured play four times a day as part of a program it adopted called the LiiNK Project. The project connects play and character development and is designed to bridge academics with the social, emotional and physical well-being of children. 

Other schools, too, have started adding recess back into the school day, but still too many limit it, and kids wind up suffering. In this post, Hanscom takes a new look at the issue. She is the author of “Balanced and Barefoot,” and the founder of TimberNook, a nature-based development program designed to foster creativity and independent play outdoors in the United States and in New Zealand.

 

By Angela Hanscom

This post just won’t sit still.

It originated on my blog here as what appeared to be a simple plea for people to wake up to the dark realities of restricting children from two things: movement and outdoor play. It got picked up and posted here and here and elsewhere, and it keeps going viral even today, nearly three years later.

Why does this message resonate with the hearts of so many?

It is a great indicator that there are many truths behind this article — ones that we need to start paying attention to. And they remain the same truths today: In order for children to learn, they must be able to pay attention. In order to pay attention, we must let them move!

To do anything less, we cause harm. In fact, we’ve reached a tipping point, where we are restricting children’s movement and play experiences so much that we are witnessing the consequences from toddlers to adolescence on this new generation of children. It is alarming.

Teachers are reporting a significant decline in children’s ability to pay attention in class to more reports of children falling out of their seats to seemingly being “unable to keep their hands off each other” during recess breaks in the past 10 years. At the same time, the number of children needing occupational therapy services to treat these issues is on the rise in a profound way.

The connection? When we continuously expect children to be seated for hours everyday, whether that is sitting for lengthy stints of time in the classroom, being driven from one event to the next, or doing homework till it gets dark outside — children are often found in an upright position with little sensory stimulation.

Children need to move much more than we realize. They need ample opportunities to move their bodies in all different directions such as going upside down, spinning in circles, rolling down hills or even climbing trees. This movement causes fluid to move back and forth in the inner ear, stimulating hair cells that develop the vestibular (balance) sense. This sense is the unifying sense and supports all the other senses.

Many children today are walking around with an underdeveloped vestibular sense. It is the No. 1 issue we have to treat in the clinic. A mature vestibular sense supports attention, emotional regulation, eye muscle control, spatial awareness, and organization of the brain to support learning! As you can imagine, if this isn’t developed and maintained through plenty of daily movement opportunities, it is very, very hard for children to learn.

This truth isn’t always easy to hear, especially when it requires action.

“I never said this was going to be easy,” my mentor told me last year when I was facing a particularly difficult trial with my work in relation to TimberNook and getting children outdoors. He was right. Doing what is right isn’t always the easiest path — but it is the right path. It would be so much easier for us to just throw our hands up and say, “this is impossible” or “we don’t have time for more play or movement during the day,” or even “our hands are tied.”

I have news for you. If you ignore this message, things are only going to get worse for the children. We will continue to see a decline in children’s strength, coordination, balance, attention and social-emotional skills.

We will likely see even more:

• Children struggling to sit still and pay attention;

• Children falling from their chairs;

• Children lacking the ability to regulate their activity levels and their emotions;

• Children hitting with too much force when playing games like tag;

• Teachers losing faith in their profession;

• A continuous rise in sensory and motor deficits.

As adults, we often have the choice if we want to move or not. Children do not have the same luxury. Even if they need to move, oftentimes they are told to remain in their seat. And their 15 minutes of recess to “play” within a six- to eight-hour school day is laughable. Young brains depend on frequent movement experiences throughout the day in order to learn, yet most schools fail to provide this essential, basic need. And we wonder why they fidget in their seats or “act up.”

We have an obligation to defend our children’s right to move.

We cannot allow fears, worries, justifications, rules and regulations to take over, to dominate the educational world and continue harming our children on a global level.

It starts with you and me. May you gather your courage and start taking the steps necessary to create this change our kids need. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

• Bring the “post that won’t sit still” to your administrators. The secret to creating change is to share the science behind movement and outdoor play and how they impact child development. Most adults want what is best for children. Once their eyes are opened to this truth, they often desire to work toward that positive change.

• Get Creative. It is time to start thinking outside the box. What are your objectives in the classroom? If it is to teach, then this is best done through meaningful hands-on, whole-body learning experiences. Take notes from Finland, and allow children to study the ecology of a river by exploring an actual river. Take a walk to a local museum to learn about history, science and the arts. Go outdoors to write poetry. Walk outside to discuss complex topics with a partner. Go a step further and create a committee just to brainstorm ways to get children moving more while learning.

• Be the example. If you are a teacher, take the children outdoors and tell other teachers about this and the changes you are seeing. If you are a parent, invite other children over for the day and send them outdoors! If you are an organization that gets kids outdoors, invite the local press to come see what you are doing and get the word out about the benefits. Being the example can be one of the most powerful ways to create change.

• Unite. Schools could benefit immensely from creating outdoor classrooms. Work with local organizations to help you plan for and fund for this endeavor. Watch as the community comes together for this greater purpose of getting children outdoors in meaningful learning experiences. Parents can do the same at home. Find like-minded individuals that value outdoor play and invite their children over to play or go on outings such as camping trips or hikes. Get to know your neighbors again to create a community that watches out for the children.

It is not enough to read these articles and say, “Yes, this is good.” Will you listen?