COLUMBIA, SC — At Pleasant Hill Elementary School, physical education teacher Tom Cronin gets kids moving with an early “walk-run” before the morning bell rings.
Each grade level has its own day with Cronin for the 15-minute activity around the school’s quarter-mile track. On rainy days, they use the gym and enjoy running and exercising indoors.
It’s purely voluntary and an enlivening way to start the day. “They can come run and walk with me for 15 minutes,” said Cronin, 40. “Some days we have upwards of 20, 30 or 40 students.” Occasionally, a parent will join in.
It’s one option, said Cronin, to extend the state-mandated 150 minutes of physical education and recess that are a regular part of the school day.
During a normal week, Pleasant Hill students have one 50-minute physical education class and daily recess of about 20 minutes, which is coupled with their lunch period. That schedule is similar to other schools in Lexington 1 and many Midlands districts.
Keeping kids active through recess and physical education is on the radar as the nation’s schools weigh meeting the obligations of the federal No Child Left Behind with rooms full of restless children who need a chance to run and play, even if it is only for 20 minutes a day.
Research shows kids’ health, social skills and brainpower get a boost from time to play outside – every day.
In drafting school physical fitness legislation, the S.C. General Assembly in 2005 made note of the state’s high rates of obesity among adults and children, as well as a plethora of obesity-related diseases, including diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
Under the Students Health and Fitness Act of 2005, the state required 150 minutes of combined physical education and physical activity for elementary students, with 60 minutes designated for PE and 90 minutes for physical activity, or recess.
Those minutes are precious, said USC professor Russ Pate, who has long advocated that schools be more intentional in engaging students in energetic physical education and play.
Too often, he said, physical education and recess are sacrificed for school assemblies, special academic offerings and field trips.
“In my view, when kids are in those settings I would want them to be active as much time as possible,” said Pate, who is director of the Children’s Physical Activity Research Group at USC’s Arnold School of Public Health. “What I hate is kids standing around in physical education programs.”
Recess is a different form of physical activity, more relaxed and spontaneous, but he said supervisors also need to be proactive in getting children moving rather than standing around talking.
“I think kids do need some unstructured time to just socialize with one another,” Pate said. But he said that socialization should take place in an outside environment where adult supervisors actively encourage the children to be active and there is plenty of equipment to engage them.
“It’s balls and hoops and tricycles and equipment that they can move around,” he said. “Kids tend to be more active with moveable play.”
Pate is opposed to administrators and teachers who withhold recess as a punishment, although a 2012 report to the legislature suggests that message hasn’t gotten through to many of the state’s elementary schools.
“Withholding recess as a punishment continues to be a common practice in spite of the preponderance of research that supports recess as an important component of social development for young school-aged children,” the report authored by Christine Beyer, in the S.C. Education Department’s Office of Teacher Effectiveness, noted.
Schools are required to complete two online school level surveys about physical education and activity annually, one by administrators and one by teachers, in order for the state education department to report back annually to the legislature.
In the latest report, completed Dec. 1, 2012, six school districts, Dillon 4, Edgefield, Jasper, Saluda, York 3 and York 4 did not complete the surveys, although that was an improvement from 2011 when 26 districts failed to report.
The report noted that schools “struggle most” with meeting the physical education requirement. But the integration of the physical activity component has been bolstered by such activities as walking programs, Jump Rope for Heart and teacher-led activities. Parent involvement has increased, with 64 percent of classroom teachers reporting that their schools offers activity programs for families.
On an encouraging note, the report noted that 70 percent of teachers and 75 percent of school administrators believe that the 2005 legislation has “resulted in having healthier and more physically fit students in kindergarten through grade 5.”
Teachers like Cronin and his colleague Debbie Houston look for openings before, during and after the school day to encourage youngsters to move. An upcoming PTA movie night on March 8, for example, will include a “flashlight” hike beforehand on the school’s quarter-mile track, he said. Each April, the school participates in a mini-marathon to raise money for the Smile Train organization that repairs children’s cleft palettes.
Pate is also impressed by the efforts of Terri Cosby, a fourth-grade teacher at Dutch Fork Elementary School in Lexington-Richland 5, who has outfitted her 40 students with pedometers.
Cosby, who specializes in math and science, got interested in monitoring her own physical activity when she attended a district health fair at the beginning of the school year.
“I signed up with Palmetto Health Outreach to track my mileage,” she said. That meant she wore a pedometer each day, which intrigued the children in her classes.
“Every day they asked, ‘How much did you walk?’” she said. And then one child wondered aloud why they couldn’t have pedometers, too.
With the help of Palmetto Health Outreach, Cosby acquired 40 pedometers and immediately began to integrate the data into her math lessons. As the children measured how much they walked daily, she also noticed another phenomenon.
“Each week they more than doubled their activity,” she said. “They were so much more motivated when they had their data.”
Cosby, who serves on the national organization Prevent Obesity, said she would like to expand the program, perhaps inaugurate an after-school walking club that could incorporate healthy activity and math skills such as computing distances.
“You have to plant seeds early,” she said.