Time For a Reboot of Health, Physical Education
Support Every Dimension of Student Development
In recent years, a couple of muses have been whispering in the national ear, inspiring citizens to take action on the physical and emotional wellbeing of our children. They are the former first lady of the land and the current first lady of New York City, urging us to address the opioid epidemic, the obesity crisis, childhood diabetes and the rising rate of teen suicide and depression. They are also our educators who value social and emotional learning and positive school culture as a necessary condition for optimal academic achievement.
They recognize that exercise is as good for the mind as it is for the body. It is definitely time for a reboot of health and physical education. The city is making an effort, but our kids are going to have to wait another two years to get even the state-required minimum amount of PE and Health Ed. The mayor made that promise in 2017. We have to act quicker and also make sure our students end with more than the minimum requirement of such critical learning. Physical education should be required for every student, every day! “The physical and emotional health of an entire generation and the economic health and security of our nation is at stake,” Michelle Obama said when she launched her national children’s health initiative, Let’s Move. “This isn’t the kind of problem that can be solved overnight, but with everyone working together, it can be solved.”
There are new, trendier menaces, too. Principals are grappling with vaping and synthetic marijuana, dangerous stuff that can be used by students with little or no penalty whatsoever. One small thing we can do almost overnight is add prohibitions. Illegal drugs are prohibited, and although alcohol and tobacco are legal for adults, the DOE outlaws them in school. If, or when, recreational marijuana is legalized, let’s be firm about that too. Let’s immediately add vaping paraphernalia to the prohibitions and untie our principals’ hands. We’re in the middle of an opioid epidemic, for heaven’s sake. What could be easier to do?
We also have to address our students’ mindsets, and this is where the dearth of health and physical education comes in. They need to be active and learn about nutrition, personal health, substance abuse and mental illness. Once we’ve done that, academic improvements will follow. From 3-K through 12th grade, we should be addressing, every day, all the dimensions of their lives. We have to give much more than lip service to children’s physical, social and emotional development so they can manage their behavior and deal with the people around them.
When she talks about her mental health initiative, ThriveNYC, NYC First Lady Chirlane McCray speaks about the high numbers of NYC public school students who have reported feeling sad or hopeless or have even attempted suicide. “We need all kinds of people to open up and talk about this thing that is so difficult to talk about,” she says. “If people don’t talk about it, we’re not going to get to the solutions we need.” Schools have to be a safe space for this kind of conversation, a prime spot being in regular health classes.
I’m not just channeling the PE teacher I once was when I say a healthy body is essential to a healthy mind. I’m backed up by mountains of research. Think about how much screen time our children put in. According to a 2016 Common Sense Media report, teens spend an average of nine hours per day interacting with media, not including time spent for school or homework. For kids ages 8-12, the same survey report found they were spending six hours online per day. American children have become dangerously sedentary. USA Today refers to our screen addiction as “the new smoking.” PE class is the only exercise in many children’s lives. Although the Centers for Disease Control have specific recommendations for time spent in PE, few, if any, states follow the guidelines. The benefit of exercise, the CDC says, is that it can lead to stronger muscles, greater endurance and stronger bones. Studies show that when obese children exercise regularly, their body fat, blood lipoids and blood pressure may fall. It also improves the powers of concentration and mood. Hence, a fit body enhances the development of a fit mind. In order to motivate our students, we need to offer them choices that focus on play for our youngest children and sustained lifetime activities for adolescents and young adults.
One major reason why so many of our children are being deprived of health and physical education is because– as with all things in NYC – space is at a premium. We owe a debt of gratitude to City Council Member Ben Kallos, who has been fighting for space to accommodate these classes. Meanwhile, we should make every effort to see that our students have access to indoor and outdoor space, using whatever is available in the community. Today, not tomorrow, every school should have the resources to create a comprehensive health and physical education plan. No excuses!
Mark Cannizzaro is president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators.