Over the last while I've had chances to do supervision at several schools. Something I soon noticed was how much fun younger students have playing, and how the rate of play drops off as the students get older. Kindergarten and primary students love their breaks. They are little bundles of energy buzzing about playing tag, sliding on the bunny hills or hanging all over the climbing frames. Intermediate students are more reserved, tending to hang around in small groups. Tag and some games are still in evidence, but the pace slows. Go to a middle or secondary school and the pace drops to a snailspace. Students are indoors, plugged into cell phones or ipods and cell phones and, at best, are walking around the campus at a leisurely pace.
So where does the fun and energy go? Partly its the way schools are structured. Middle and secondary schools are designed to maximize classroom instruction time. Breaks are short and are used for transitions between classes rather than for real energy release. Students are encouraged to "grow up", "act their age" and govern themselves in a controlled manner. Too cool for school, older students are conditioned to be increasingly sedentary - just like adults.
Maybe we've got it all wrong! Rather than working to calm students down and take the play out of breaks, we should be finding ways to keep students moving and involved in unstructured play longer. The benefits of active play are certainly recognized and promoted in preschool and primary children. In Australia government actively promotes the benefits of active play citing improved communication and social skills, better understanding of social rules, friendships, a sense of 'give and take', increased patience and perseverance and understanding of others and better teamwork and a sense of belonging. If these skills are worth developing in our youngest students, surely we should be promoting them with older students too?
Kidshealth.org describes both the benefits of keeping all students active and suggests some reasons why older students stop being active. Increased self awareness, feelings of self doubt and a lack of adult role models are all cited as obstacles to older students staying active. What can be done? The role model piece should be a no brainer. Educators and parents can provide positive role models, staying active themselves and putting some fun and a sense of play back into daily interactions.
Some principals are masters. Roaming their playgrounds they brim with energy. Cracking a joke here, passing out a friendly greeting or words of encouragement there, they actively engage students. They keep a sense of order for sure, but also nurture a positive sense of reinforcement and approval for active play. Such principals are active themselves as coaches for teams or participants in lifelong individual activities like badminton or long distance running. By getting out themselves they show all students that its ok to be active and involved. Not only that, they are reaping the benefits of being active themselves. More than one has told me that getting out with the students helps keep them feeling younger themselves! So when it comes to fun and fitness let's take our cues from our youngest students and get out there and get active!