Let’s get physical

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Maybe it’s because it is April 2nd and the sun is out, a brisk breeze, but no snow or ice to be seen. It has been a relatively “easy” winter here in Maine, capped off by an inexplicable run of 80 degree days in mid-March. But still, most of us have just spent the better part of five months inside, sitting more than we should.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am at a time of my life (age 64) when the need to be fit is a driving force. I’m running, swimming, participating in a rigorous workout program, monitoring my food intake, and staying away from the foods I should not eat—at least most of the time. As I look at middle level students (and elementary and high school too) I see a group of kids, many of whom are very out of shape…at 11, 12, 13, and 14 years old.

Here’s the deal—why do we ignore the physical side of our students‘ learning? We pay attention to their academic, emotional, social and psychological development. Why do we pay so LITTLE attention to their physical development. Especially, when responding to what they need is so easy to provide? Ok, I know what you are thinking? As with everything else, habits, learning, and modeling must start at home. I get that. But we have young adolescents for a significant amount of time everyday. Why can’t we work in concert with parents/caregivers to help our kids get and stay fit?

Of course we know that improving their physical selves will also help our students in those other realms of development—they will learn more, get along better, stay motivated longer, and set some of those lifetime habits we always talk about.

Here are a few suggestions to get us started, but I really would appreciate hearing your ideas…either from your school or ideas you have to improve the physical well-being of our students.

1. Food—healthy and present. Breakfast is key and if students don’t get it at home (or it may simply be too early to eat before leaving for school) they must get it at school. Not talking about bacon and eggs here, but a simple, healthy meal that sustains them for the morning, or at least until 9:30 am. What next? Healthy snacks during the day…not Doritos and soda, but fruit, cheese, water, and vegetables to name a few. Lunch is a similar vein. Some schools involve students in planning meals, and participating with preparation, and clean-up is also a great idea. And while we are on this topic, please, can’t we make school cafeterias into inviting spaces where students can relax, talk quietly, and learn some social graces? Just as we do in the world—at home and in restaurants.

2. Exercise and movement.  As important as excellent physical programs are, a twice a week 35 minute physical education class is simply not enough time. How about some beginning of the day stretches and throughout the day as needed?  How about several laps around the school at lunch time? Adults are encouraged to walk 10,000 steps a day. Where are our students getting that same opportunity? (Maybe we should give every student a pedometer to monitor their steps.) I know, I know…order, traffic control, and focus. But, all of these can be learned. If I were still a middle school teacher, I would find a couple of inexpensive exercise bikes for the back of the classroom for students to use quietly anytime they need to move and burn off some energy. And I would be right there with them.

3. Classroom comfort. More than anything else, middle level students hear all day, “…stay in your seats.” Kids need to move a lot during the day. Walk down a hall and look in and see the number of middle school students fidgeting in their desks or tables and chairs. Nothing is harder and more uncomfortable on the backsides of young adolescents than school furniture. We need more options for kids to work comfortably—whether stretched out on the floor on a rug or on big pillows, sitting in easy chairs, or standing up. How about some higher desks where students can write, type, or collaborate from a standing position?

The interesting thing is that every one of these ideas has been used in a number of schools, yet, while none of these ideas is particularly revolutionary, they are atypical for the majority of schools.

Which of these ideas appeal to you…and more importantly to your students?

What would you do to make your classroom and school more physically responsive to young adolescents?

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