Does your child get enough exercise every day? Does she breathe fast and break a sweat for 60 minutes, as is recommended to keep kids healthy? That's happening while she's at school, right? Maybe not.
Only about half of kids 11 to 16 are active at least 5 days a week, one study shows. If you’re counting on your child getting all of their physical activity at school, think again. Only 1 in 5 school systems offers recess every day. Kids can spend recess sitting on the school steps -- if they get recess at all.
So, what's a parent to do? Get involved.
Exercise is so important. It helps keep kids at a healthy weight and can make them feel good, physically and mentally. Moving and playing is a great stress-reliever. It can also help kids manage their emotions and inspire them to make other healthy choices, like picking healthy foods. Here’s how to help your kids get more movement at school.
1. Check and See: Does Your School Make the Fitness Grade?
First, compare your child's school with an "active school" here. Schools are measured on things like: Do the kids get activity breaks throughout the day? How often do they have recess? PE? Are all kids moving at once during gym class?
At the end of the assessment you can get a six-step plan of action, including a report on how your child’s school ranks. Plus, you can find out how to apply for grant money for equipment, or training for school staff or volunteers.
Ideally, a school should offer physical activity for at least 60 minutes daily.
2. Inform Others
With that information in hand, get a little more. Learn how movement helps students and what makes a good PE program. (Here is one place to start.) That way, you can offer some possible solutions when you raise concerns to school administrators or teachers.
People may think that academics and physical activity can’t coexist during the school day, but that’s just not true, says Sam Kass, executive director for Let's Move!, the national initiative to fight childhood obesity.
"The science shows that physical activity helps kids perform better on tests. A lot of the push-back comes from school staff feeling a conflict between good grades or running around and being healthy," says Kass. "It's a false conflict."
Point out that regular, small fitness breaks promote good health and better attention to academics. Giving kids the chance to burn off some energy and get their blood flowing can improve their mood and focus.
One school in Chicago found that when kids went to gym class before math or reading, their test scores improved. And a study found that kids who walked on a treadmill for 20 minutes scored a full grade better on reading comprehension.
Joining a school council or wellness committee is one way to voice your ideas and help get more movement in your child’s school.
Karina Macedo's two boys go to a Chicago public school where kids have chances to move all day long. It offers after-school soccer, Zumba, folkloric dance, and a running club for girls on-site.
But it wasn't always this way. When Macedo joined the school council 5 years ago, many Chicago schools didn't offer recess at all. But thanks to Macedo and other parents’ work, there's daily recess, PE, an activity program before school, and free exercise classes for parents, too.
Once you're inspired, there are so many ways to help make change. You could:
- Get personal. Go to your child's teacher, the PE teacher, principal, or school nurse and ask where they need help.
- Help raise money. Budget cuts are another thing that schools say restricts their ability to offer opportunities for exercise. Money you raise can go toward equipment, or staff to lead activity.
- Find a fitness partner for the school. The local park district, YMCA, or JCC may have vans that can take elementary kids to a rec center after school at little or no cost.
4. Start Small to Make It Happen
You can start with just one classroom. Plan a fitness show-and-tell. Bring in any type of pro -- Tae Kwon Do, Karate, dance. Or ask the school’s PE teacher to lead your child's class in doing some moves. Yoga poses, wall pushups, and desk pushups are just a few options for 3-5 minute breaks that teachers can lead during class. Those breaks can all count toward adding up to the 60 minutes your child should move each day.
Talk to the teacher, says Jenna Johnson, director of Family Wellness for Sanford Health Systems in Fargo, North Dakota. "Maybe bring in your yoga teacher and show the kids how to do a warrior pose right."
The idea is to give teachers training so they can work movement into lesson plans. For example, when it's time for math-fact drills, "Why can you not do that in a warrior pose rather than a chair?" says Johnson.
This approach can also work as a change of pace for inactive after-school clubs, like chess, art, band, orchestra, or yearbook. Kids can take moves they learn at school and have fun with them at home, too.