A Move to Better Schooling

April 10, 2018

Physical Education is often regarded as a divisive once/week experience in which jocks thrive, nerds cower, and an apathetic instructor, who endures their day job so they can coach a varsity sport, supervises.  These flimsy, one-dimensional stereotypes are, of course, unfair.  Just as some students feel as comfortable in a classroom as they do a gymnasium, most PE teachers are devoted professionals.  Still, many students and teachers consider PE a low stakes outlet from regular school time.  Administrators can help reverse this mentality by ensuring their students one hour of daily physical activity.  Doing so would improve children’s fitness, morale, and academic results.

The human body is designed for perpetual activity.  Our hunter-gatherer ancestors traversed vast distances and until recently, most jobs were physically demanding.  To desire movement is to be human.  Vitality and lethargy, however, are both contagious.  Not honoring students’ physical well being, is subconsciously encouraging idle behavior.  Sadly, economic, technological, and environmental factors have increased sedentary existences.  Nearly one in five children ages six to 18 are obese, a 5,000% increase over the past 40 years.  While schools might not feel responsible for addressing the obesity epidemic, they should feel obligated to provide children with enriching emotional and academic experiences.  Increasing physical activity during the school day does both.

For most of human history, childhood has been synonymous with recreation.  In pre-schooling society, kids hiked, swam, and played whenever they weren’t helping their parents with chores.  Play remains an integral part of young people’s lives,­­ but is increasingly channeled through virtual, indoor experiences.  These modes of play are problematic, because children have incredible physical energy that can’t be exerted through video or classroom games.  To suppress their natural inclination is to take away a vital part of childhood.  When children expend energy, they are happier.  Happy students are more enjoyable to teach and better prepared to learn.

Since the turn of the millennium, schools have fallen under increasing pressure to perform well on standardized tests.  Many administrators addressed this problem by increasing academic time at the expense of special classes.  The more instruction a student receives they reason, the more they learn.  This flawed logic assumes that the brain functions is a bottomless vessel, capable of consuming knowledge at the same rate its presented.  Schools should try to maximize student learning, but must recognize that - like a muscle – brain’s get tired.

At some point, all students experience a Fried Brain phenomenon.  It tends to follow lengthy reading intervals, listening to long lectures, or being stumped on a math problem.  This mental fatigue is the brain signaling its exhaustion.  When this occurs, a short walk can provide students with much needed exercise, while sending oxygen to the brain [1].  During the walk, student focus might shift from their academic work, but their subconscious would continue processing what they were learning.  When they later return to the classroom they are refreshed and have retained more information than if they had continued studying.

Changing any habit or complex becomes harder the longer it festers.  Reversing them, however, can be transformative for an individual’s confidence and life outlook.  Teachers can help this process by strategically using exercise as a pedagogical tool.  On days when physical education isn’t scheduled, students should be provided 60 minutes of movement outside the classroom.  This would improve children’s health and happiness, but also their learning.  In time, they would come to recognize physical activity as an integral part of their schooling and life, not a tangential, once/week experience.



[1]  Recess and short stretch breaks are inadequate alternatives, because both give children the option of remaining idle.