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Why Some School Kids Can’t Compete in Fitness Week

The school playground

Published in ChicagoNow, April 18, 2016

My granddaughter came home last Monday with a Fitness Week worksheet from her gym teacher. It proclaimed each child should get 60 minutes of exercise a day. The kids were asked to chart this for a week, and those who accomplished the goal would get a reward. Here’s how this daily total could be accomplished: 20 minutes of PE, 20 minutes of recess, and 20 minutes at home. For one answer to why this is a tough assignment, see the school field, pictured above.

You may wonder why dig up a play field in April when the weather is finally getting decent in our neck of the woods? Well, back in 2011, the Evanston/Skokie District 65 school board approved a huge school renovation project to modernize Lincoln School and add much needed classroom space. The work was completed during the 2012-13 school year, and the kids finally had their play space back at the start of school in 2014. Or did they?

During the construction, over 500 children shared portions of two small asphalt play areas, waiting for the field to be ready. Here’s what they found at the end of the project: a steeply sloped pit had replaced the grassy, street-level playing field. Yes, they could play soccer in the base of the pit, unless it rained, causing it to become too muddy for a week. On nice winter days, they could run off some of their cooped-up energy on the field, unless it snowed and kids who ventured into the pit had a hard time climbing out due to the icy sides. Using the field for physical education classes was out. It was deemed too unsafe after several injuries.

Why on earth did the school district build a storm water retention pond instead of a play field? Because a new sewer improvement law was passed, and the original understanding of the law was that a slight slope was required for the field to accommodate water run-off for the surrounding neighborhood. When the error in interpreting the law was discovered, there was no money left in the budget to do it properly. Thus, the field remained only moderately useful for exercise and play until public opinion pushed the school district to remedy the mistake.

This long-winded story helps to explain one reason why my granddaughter and her peers will have a hard time getting 20 minutes of exercise in a play area that looks like this:

Waiting for the bell to ring on the only useable play space

But this is only part of the story. I just bought my granddaughter a 4-square playground ball to take to school to use with her classmates. Seems that since the field was closed, the only options for the kids to get exercise, aside from the play equipment many of them have outgrown, are shooting hoops and playing 4-square. And there are not enough balls. Amazing, right? She claims there are eight balls for 100 students, and two of them are deflated. By the time her class gets out for recess, all of the balls are taken. In a casual conversation with parents from other schools, I was told this was typical.

Assuming the children get 20 minutes of fitness activity in their PE class, the lack of play space and materials limit their recess fitness opportunity. In addition, “The Great Recess Debate” has been raging in our community since parents and a school board member asked for a “recess as a right rather than a privilege” policy. You would have thought the sky had fallen given the opposition from administrators, the school board, and some teachers. So even though my granddaughter and her friend’s science fair project “scientifically proved” that kids need recess, a combination of limited play space, not enough play equipment, unpredictable Midwest weather, and our district’s continuing commitment to withholding recess as a punishment make the second chunk of 20 minutes of fitness time an iffy proposition at best.

To complete their fitness worksheets, therefore, most children needed to have 40 minutes of physical activity after school. But wait. There are after school commitments, clubs, and non-physical activities. And homework that needs to be completed. Add to this the fact that the weather wasn’t great during Fitness Week, and finding the time and place for 40 minutes of physical activity was a challenge.

My granddaughter is lucky. She’s a serious dancer and takes a class four of the five days of Fitness Week. On the fifth day, she was also lucky to have a basement play space where she could rollerblade on a rainy afternoon to fulfill the requirement. I guess if that had not been available, she would have had to do 40 minutes of indoor calisthenics.

The ultimate irony of this tale is that many of the same adults who tout Fitness Week limit opportunities for kids to exercise by doing what comes naturally to them — playing freely. Given that we want children to be fit, I can’t understand why it is so difficult to pass a simple policy that recess is a right, not a privilege. To deny any child access to a mere 20 minutes of free play during a mostly sedentary school day, with the exception of a child who abuses the free play time by being a danger to herself or others, seems like the antithesis of promoting Fitness Week in our schools. Even when weather precludes outdoor recess, there must be a plan in place to provide 20 minutes of indoor free play.

Having Fitness Week just before a vote by the school board that will maintain recess as a privilege, coupled with schools that are not properly resourced to support exercise and free play, is rather ironic. To ensure children are fit, both physically and mentally, a policy that recognizes recess as a right makes far more sense than a worksheet.


by Laurie Levy
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