Education Opinion

Run Run As Fast As You Can

By Susan Graham — October 01, 2009 3 min read

The headline reads, More ‘Progress,’ Less Play-Doh. An area superintendent wrote kindergarten parents explaining that the school system

...is committed to providing each child with the essential skills and knowledge he or she needs to succeed. Fulfillment of this goal must begin at an early age. The kindergarten curriculum is designed to engage children in the learning process, provide them with a sense of accomplishment and help them understand the value of what they are learning."

Translation: The essential skills and knowledge that 5-year olds need are not going to be found in finger paint, puzzles, the home living center, or outdoor play. But a daily dose of test prep will help them succeed, giving them a sense of accomplishment. Boy, if that won’t make a little kid understand the value of what they are learning, I don’t know what will!

Closer to home, another school system has parents up in arms about recess. A school scheduling consultant was brought in to help tweak elementary school performance. His advice: squeeze in a little more test prep by cutting the unstructured recess for 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders in half, down to fifteen minutes. Thirty minutes of free play, twenty minutes for lunch, and two bathroom breaks a day at five minutes each is an inefficient loss of of time on task. For a 9-year old, preparation for life long learning may look a lot like a life sentence. Even prison inmates get yard time.

Our poor kids! We’re running them ragged without ever letting them go outside and run around. However, there’s now research that indicates that maybe we could maximize performance by having them run more. Better yet, having them run faster! In a real world flashback to The Secret of NIMH, there is a new study that indicates that structured “running can push intellectual development.” In Taiwan, researchers found that mice that exercise on little mouse wheels seem to think more than those who do not get physical activity. Furthermore, experimental mice that are put on tiny little treadmills that force them to run harder and increase their rodent exertion rates demonstrate still greater thinking activity. The conclusion: “Allow a laboratory mouse to run as much as it likes, and its brainpower improves. Force it to run harder than it otherwise might, and its thinking improves even more.”

I didn’t take time to investigate exactly how mouse thinking was quantified. Nor did I check to see if the researchers have any interest in qualitative research regarding what the mice thought about. But it did occur to me that someone somewhere is likely develop a new education initiative to have kindergarteners training for marathons to ensure that no child is left behind physically or intellectually.

The problem is that you can collect data to drive almost any decision for school. Basing it on data isn’t enough, the data have to be viewed in context. Now if the premise is that life is a rat race and the responsibility of public education is to ensure that no child gets left behind in that rat race, then this is the kind of data that should drive instructional decision making. On the other hand, if the beginning premise is that educating children involves nurturing their physical, emotional, and social development as well as their intellectual development, then a clearer perspective might be gained from looking at an overview of data from an ERIC Digest titled Recess in Elementary School: What Does the Research Say?

• Experimental research on memory and attention (e.g., Toppino, Kasserman, & Mracek, 1991) found that recall is improved when learning is spaced rather than presented all at once. Their findings are compatible with what is known about brain functioning: that attention requires periodic novelty, that the brain needs downtime to recycle chemicals crucial for long-term memory formation, and that attention involves 90- to 110-minute cyclical patterns throughout the day (Jensen, 1998).

• Much of what children do during recess, including the sharing of folk culture (Bishop & Curtis, 2001), making choices, and developing rules for play, involves the development of social skills.

• Inactivity, according to research cited in Waite-Stupiansky and Findlay (2001), is associated with the tripling of childhood obesity since 1970, accompanied by increases in health problems such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

• If children do not have the opportunity to be active during the school day, they do not tend to compensate after school. Experimental research found that children were less active after school on days when they had no recess and PE classes in school (Dale, Corbin, & Dale, 2000)

Ah, but it’s just not as good of a sound bite as:

Allow a laboratory mouse to run as much as it likes, and its brainpower improves. Force it to run harder than it otherwise might, and its thinking improves even more.

Pushing kids harder, physically or mentally, might get short term results because, as legendary marathoner Clarence DeMar put it, many will “run like hell and get the agony over with.”

It’s not a bad idea if you think life is a rat race, but it’s no way to treat our children.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.