This issue is near and dear to my heart. I am a therapist who has worked with so many children who's mothers and/or teacher's one desperate plea is to "just help their child to sit still." I am also a mother to a very normal but very active 3 year old boy who understands this struggle is real.
I don't wan't to lose you by talking statistics but take a brief look at the numbers below. They are alarming. Percentages of children who are diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, otherwise known as ADHD, is rising yearly, according to studies performed by the CDC. According to a CDC's National Health Survey:
- The percentage of children with an ADHD diagnosis continues to increase, from 7.8% in 2003 to 9.5% in 2007 and to 11.0% in 2011.
- A 2011-2012 survey revealed 237,000 children in the US had a diagnosis of ADHD (a 57% increase from 2007-2008)
- Boys (13.2%) were more likely than girls (5.6%) to have ever been diagnosed with ADHD.
Just one look at the numbers above and one might suspect we are in the middle of an ADHD epidemic. However, I refuse to believe that our children are the ones that are getting less "capable of learning." I whole-heartedly believe it is an environmental issue. I believe the problem lies in the systems in which we are placing our children in.
When you couple the numbers above with the significant reduction in recess and unstructured play time in U.S. schools over the past several decades, there becomes an obvious parallel (at least to me) between the two subjects.
Children just weren't designed to sit still! They were designed for movement and play. Unstructured play, role playing with peers, sensory exploration and movement are all ways in which children learn about the world around them.
Any therapist will tell you that frequent movement (vestibular input to the brain) is essential for making important neurological changes to a child's sensory system that allows them to respond appropriately to the world around them. What this translates to in non-therapist lingo is that a child needs to be engaged in movement and sensory exploration frequently and habitually in order to learn how to attend auditorally or "listen" to what is being said in the classroom.
From my perspective kids need to be outside, in nature. They need to be allowed without parental constrains to play in the sand, jump in the puddles, climb, fall and get back up, jump from a high place, dig in the mud, etc. You get the point. They need to be allowed the opportunity to be a kid. But it goes further than that even. This unrestricted play time needs to be frequent, throughout the day, in regular intervals. If we are respecting a child for who they really are we need to begin to understand a child's constant need for movement in order to learn and attend. I can't tell you how many times I have recommended "frequent movement breaks" and "opportunities for proprioceptive input throughout the day" (aka heavy body work such as lifting, pushing, jumping, climbing, etc) to a teacher who has a difficult child who is having trouble learning and sitting still.
In the U.S. a typical pre-school has an average of 30 minutes of outdoor time a day (and its often at the end of the day which negates the effects for learning). Kindergarten programs and up often have less or even no outdoor time at all, depending on the school and the district. Finland, who's education system is lauded for producing the best "learners" statistically than almost any other nation, understands and respects a child's need for movement. Finland's educational system began gaining popularity in the headlines around the year 2000, when results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year olds in 72 participating countries, came in, touting Finland's youth to be the best readers in the world. (2) Since then, Finland continues to score as one of the leading countries in all areas of math, science and reading. (1) In schools in Finland, children take a 15 minute outdoor free play break for every 45 minute learning session. This sounds exactly like something I would recommend to a parent. A movement break about every hour for a child having a difficult time sitting still. It is alarming how different their schooling is when compared to the United States, who's scores on the PISA are pretty shocking considering we spend more money per student than almost any other nation.
They also spend significantly less time in school in general, starting school around 9-9:45 and ending around 2:45. They also don't begin formal schooling until the age of SEVEN! They begin when they are developmentally ready to learn. They believe beginning the children with formal schooling before they're ready would only stress them out. The list of differences between how we do school in the United States goes on and on and I would only begin to scratch the surface but the point about Finland is very obvious. They are respecting children for what they are, children. The results are outstanding.
How much play is recommended?
I would love it if schools in the U.S began increasing frequency and duration of recess time and followed more of the Finland type model. Truly, I believe fifteen minutes of free outdoor play for every 45 minutes of learning is the most efficient way to prepare a child's brain for learning. Proprioceptive and vestibular input primes the brain to attend visually and auditorally to information being presented to them. It also helps them to self-regulate and remain calm and seated during learning. When a child is kicking his feet, wiggling his butt or biting off all of his erasor, it is his/her way of showing you that his body is craving sensory input and can no longer take it!
I do realize this may not sound practical for most teachers. Having worked in various school settings, I have seen firsthand how overwhelming being a teacher can be. However, I do not feel it is impossible. Be creative, bend the rules a little bit! If you can't give them a full 15 minutes of free outdoor play (which most teachers honestly can't with the constraints placed on them by the school) then stop and turn on some music and let them get their wiggles out. Do a break for a 5 minute stretch or yoga session. Play a silly ball game for 10 minutes that lets the kids move around the classroom. I have a lot of ideas for easy games for movement breaks which will be follow up post to this article.
Get them outside
Parents; this one's for you. Get your kids outside every day. I mean every day. They have been in school sitting still all day and depending on your child's school and how long their recess time is restricted to, they are busting at the seams when they come home. Take them to the playground every day. Go on a nature walk. Or for those of you with backyards, let them run around in the underwear and play in the dirt if you have to. They need to run, jump, climb, roll around, spin in circles, etc. They need to challenge their vestibular systems!
How can I help?
Since recess is such a hot topic these days, there are so many ways to get involved by becoming an advocate for more recess. Here is a quick list of ways you can be an advocate for more recess in your school district.
-Ask questions/talk to the teacher about the daily routine (be open to understanding the constraints placed on them as well)
-If your school has a restricted recess time, find out why. Is it a district-mandate or a school-specific policy?
-Set up an appointment with the person who makes the policies
-Join a recess advocacy group (I listed a few below)
-Vote! A Public School Recess Bill was apparently just passed in Florida mandating all schools to require 20 minutes a day of recess
-Speak out at town hall meetings
-Email members of congress
-Host or help set up a Playpod in your area - there is a really great group that creates playpods (multi-sensory fun zones for kids) all over the country. It is through the Alliance for Childhood (listed below)
-Speak to friends about the topic of recess (or lack thereof in the US)
2) Hancock, Lynnell. "Why are Finland's schools successfull" Smithsonian Magazine. Sept. 2001. <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/why-are-finlands-schools-successful-49859555/>
3) Day, K. (2015, April 15) 11 Ways Finlands Education System shows us less is more. Retrieved from: https://fillingmymap.com/2015/04/15/11-ways-finlands-education-system-shows-us-that-less-is-more/