Saturday, September 02, 2006

Children getting fatter and we don't know why. Oh, wait, we do.

It's because kids don't get exercise anymore! And unlike others, I'm not really going to come down too hard on the government for that, but schools still have the responsibility for physical education. Kids should be exercising every day. If they're not, yes, it's the parents' fault first and foremost, but it's like reading and writing. Children primarily learn through experience, and that means their parents have to read to them. If the parents don't, school can at least make kids literate at a basic level. If the parents do, it's still up to the school to advance their knowledge beyond a merely functional level. It's the same with exercise. It's up to the parents to get out there and play ball with their kids, but it's up to the school to either make up for a lack of physical activity at home or to advance children beyond that level. There's no doubt about it: phys. ed. at school is vitally important to children's health. That's why these figures are so disappointing:

The percentage of students who attend a daily physical education class has dropped from 42 percent in 1991 to 28 percent in 2003, the report says.

As the article goes on to say, most kids are active on their own. But one other important fact about public education is that it makes a variety of experiences available to children that would otherwise not have them. The same goes for sports.

Meanwhile, some 41 million American kids participate in organized, extracurricular youth sports like soccer, baseball, and football, which can balance the reported drop in physical activity at school. But, proponents of increased physical activity contend that not every child is able to take part in the sometimes-expensive organized play, making physical education in schools essential.

The question we might want an answer to is "Why is physical education in schools suffering so badly?" Some are blaming the No Child Left Behind act.

"We acknowledge that while the goals of these educational initiatives -- NCLB included -- are good, our position is that this is not an either/or situation. We should expect both from our schools: physical activity and high academic achievement," says Russell Pate, a professor of exercise science at the University of South Carolina. He is also a co-author of an American Heart Association scientific statement entitled "Promoting Physical Activity in Children and Youth."

"We really feel that a national problem is that P.E. and health education are not included in core curriculum in schools," he says. "I think it is obvious schools are going to understandably pay the most attention to areas where they are evaluated. If we continue to leave P.E. off the accountability records, it will be hard to get schools to incorporate it."

Nearly a third of the states do not mandate physical education for elementary and middle school students, and 12 states allow students to earn required physical education credits through online physical education courses, according to the NASPE report.

Whether it's NCLB or not, schools have been cutting back on PE for years because it requires money. That's the same reason they've cut back on music and art programs as well. The emphasis these days is pretty much getting back to just the three R's. As far as personal development though, I think that's a short-sighted and eventually damaging policy. We should be funding schools better than we are, although somehow the majority of people think we can do that while simultaneously holding taxes at bay. Not only is public education necessary for the personal development of children, it's necessary for the development of the democratic spirit. Professional sports leagues notwithstanding, playing sports on a team is a good way to teach people unselfish habits. Also, public leagues and school teams are much more ethnically varied than neighborhoods tend to be, since schools typically draw from a wide geographic area, often encompassing both higher and lower end housing. I fully believe that anything which reinforces the democratic spirit and nature of our country is good and should be a high priority. You don't have to teach kids dogmatic beliefs (like "always love and support your President, even if he's a bad, stupid man") to inculcate a true love of democracy in them as well as an understanding of children with different backgrounds.

Not to mention just being in the habit of playing sports and exercising. If you form habits in people, they'll often just continue them. Get them used to at least a half-hour of exercise a day and the likelihood is that they'll keep it up. This is why sports is important in school. Sports injuries don't cost nearly as much in health-care as sick people who should be in the prime of their lives but aren't because they're overweight or even obese. And of course, good health extends one's life, so if we assume that life is a good thing then exercise must be a good thing as well. Let's support better physical education for children before we end up with a society where 50% of the population is having heart attacks by age 40.


Xanthippas said...

I agree completely. Kids spend 40 hours or more a week at school; more time than perhaps they'll spend with their parents. Schools should not be indoctrinating kids, but they should be teaching them, and that teaching extends to physical education and activity, and teaching them basic moral behavior we can all agree on (like sharing, playing with others and cooperating to achieve a goal.) I simply don't understand why Americans in general are so willing to bitch about inadequate schools, but so unwilling to pay for better ones. Until schools get the money they need and teachers are paid what they deserve (which is enough to attract good people away from doing something else) then are schools will be what they are; some brilliant, most inadequate, and some truly awful.

Nat-Wu said...

It seems that most people don't view this as a responsibility of the federal government, but it is the responsibility of some government, and it seems that states and cities overall are doing a poor job. This is one case where you can demonstrate that a redistribution of wealth is not only fair, but beneficial to the nation as a whole. I say we federalize the school system and then take that money we've been wasting on the war in Iraq and spend some of it on education. Children should be educated intellectually and physically (and socially) in schools, and schools should be one of those things that we make a serious commitment to financially and structurally. Education is important, but we should make it paramount.