ASCD Whole Child Bloggers

Ignorance or Arrogance: Depriving Children of Physical Activity in School

Steven C. Jefferies

Post submitted by Steve Jefferies, professor of physical education at Central Washington University (CWU) and past president of Whole Child Partner the National Association for Sport and Physical Education. He is also the publisher of pelinks4u, a nonprofit program sponsored by the CWU Foundation and supported by a variety of companies and organizations connected to the physical education profession. E-mail Jefferies at

A country is as strong as its citizens, and I think mental and physical health, mental and physical vigor go hand in hand.

—John F. Kennedy

Almost 50 years ago, John F. Kennedy, U.S. president and the parent of two young children, connected the strength of the nation with the need for a physically active citizenry. Sadly, this vision remains unfulfilled, and by all accounts we now face worsening health primarily as the result of sedentary living and poor diets.

In the last decade, the crisis in our schools—persistently low academic performance—has been addressed at the expense of student health. The goals of No Child Left Behind, although admirable in their intent, omitted any health or physical education requirements. Not surprisingly, many schools responded by reducing or eliminating opportunities for daily physical activity and increasing seat time focused on those "academic" subjects targeted for assessment.

Ironically, the reading, writing, math, and communication skills educators would dearly love to see increase will never be realized as long as we persist with the current dualistic perspective of body and mind. Whether we look to the Roman "sound mind, sound body" philosophy, Piaget's recognition that babies both "learn to move" and "move to learn," or our own personal life experiences, it's clear that bodies and minds starved of movement deteriorate.

Not long ago, our schools were most culpable in turning the children who showed up as "happy puppies" in kindergarten into sad old dogs by the time they graduated. Children arrived at our schools from infancy and early childhood where they were used to the joyous movement of unstructured play, only to be swiftly deconditioned by the joyless imperative to sit still. Witness the same relish of these youngsters given the chance to escape outside for recess and free their bodies from the captivity of the typical academic classroom.

Today, sadly many children no longer even arrive at kindergarten as happy puppies. Much earlier, sometimes from birth, they have been conditioned by a continuous diet of television viewing and fast food to a sedentary lifestyle. They no longer want to move. Worsening obesity is merely a symptom of this malaise. The fundamental problem that all educators need to solve is a lack of bodily movement, because this inactivity negatively impacts emotional, social, intellectual, spiritual, and, yes, physical health.

Incarcerate any human, and decline is inevitable. The simple fact is that through thousands or maybe millions of years of evolution, the human body was designed to move. Bones, muscles, and brain cells are nourished and thrive on a diet of physical movement. When the body doesn't move, it declines.

Whether through ignorance or arrogance, in today's schools we've become accustomed to allocating time for our students to move based on an arbitrarily constructed adult prescription. In elementary schools, twice a week physical education for 30 minutes at a time meets most agendas. How absurd can we be? Do adults really believe that they can specify how much movement the young, physically developing body needs to flourish? Little wonder our classrooms are full of children exhibiting behavioral problems, lacking social skills, and unfocused and disinterested in instruction.

In large part, our frustrating struggle to promote academic achievement is the consequence of our dull-witted efforts to inject learning into environments that do their best to preclude learning. But what do we do? We give them more of the same thing. Have them read longer. Make them do more math problems. Eliminate recess. We persist with the mantra "pile on the bookwork and surely they'll learn." This approach will never work with our children, and they deserve much better.

Like us, children perform well when they are healthy and happy, and they are at their happiest when they are moving.

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