The Nation's Pulse

What Obama Should Tell the Kids

It's time for tetherball -- and much else.

By 9.14.10

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Once again I received a note home from my son's school about President Obama's address to school kids. Since Obama has now made this questionable practice a tradition, I'd like to suggest what Obama should say. Unlike those who might be concerned that Obama will try to brainwash the children about health care, I think Obama needs to talk to students about health. I also think he needs to act like a good politician and tell kids exactly what they want to hear. He needs to tell them, "You need more recess."

Sadly, recess is dying by strangulation from other supposedly good things. Recently, I met my son's teacher and received a copy of my son's schedule. I saw lots of good things he needs to and should learn, but I also looked for what I always loved -- those precious times of recess. 

When I was in school, I had three of them. Fifteen minutes in the morning, thirty minutes after lunch and fifteen minutes in the afternoon. During those times I learned to create games with others, choose my own activities, get along, argue, and negotiate.

Of course, I also learned in class, but that was a different kind of learning. I learned to follow directions, write papers, sit still, complete math problems, and be quiet. I learned under the teacher's direction and with limited peer governance. I loved recess as the place of student freedom and creativity and friendship building. Remarkably enough, in addition to that hour of recess, I also had physical education. It's no surprise to me when I read that Colorado, the state where I attended elementary school, has fewer problems with obesity than most other states.

One of my worst memories involved moving from the recess rich state of Colorado to Texas in seventh grade. In Colorado, I could play soccer, basketball, four-square, tetherball, or various other games during recess. When I arrived at my Texas junior high, however, the only option was to sit in the courtyard, which I did by myself until some big ninth-grader came up and told me he was going to kick my butt. 

Recess became a place of two great student maladies -- boredom and fear. Fortunately, I eventually found those resourceful few students who, even without soccer fields or basketball courts, created their own games with a wall and a tennis ball. Even as a kid, I wondered, "Why doesn't this school know how to make recess fun and productive?"

Unfortunately, I find Texas and other states now passing along this woeful recess tradition in a different way -- by severely limiting recess time. For example, although Texas is one of the more obese states and the American Heart Association finds that between 25% and 50% of children are overweight, I discovered on my son's schedule that he has 20 minutes of recess and that's it. What's going on here? Why such disrespect for the time kids play outside?

This trend is quite puzzling, because the benefits of recess are clearly documented. Studies find recess leads to "increased student focus on studies, physical activity participation, awareness of healthy habits, alertness and enjoyment, and higher staff involvement." Of course, recess is no cure all for physical education problems. Various studies show that only around half of children participate in moderate to vigorous physical activity during recess. More probably needs to be done to provide incentives for students to engage in physical activity during recess. Yet, if schools only have recess for 20 minutes (or less) each day, they will have little motivation to improve it. 

This matter also ties back to the issue of health care. If we only give kids 20 minutes of recess per day, it will increasingly become obvious, as it currently is anyway, that President Obama underestimated what we'll need to spend on health care. Since many medical problems are tied to obesity (and our schools are making the problem worse), we can be sure that we'll be spending more. So President Obama, go ahead and try to brainwash those children. Ask them to call their state legislators and demand more recess.

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About the Author

Perry L. Glanzer teaches in the School of Education and the Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University.