The Science of Educating Wiggly Little Kids

preschool-gradIn the summer of 2011, I was taking a class devoted to effective teaching practices and we had to review a journal article that related to one of the chapters in our text book. It was an academic assignment, but none of my grad school assignments were wasted on things that had nothing to do with my work. I chose writing topics that I could also apply in the field, thereby killing two research birds with one virtual stone.

The article I ended up reviewing is titled, “Social and Environmental Factors Associated with Preschoolers’ Nonsecondary Physical Activity,” and was published in the January/February 2009 in Child Development, which is a professional journal devoted, obviously, to the science of child development. At the time the study was published in 2009, 26.2% of preschoolers were at risk of being overweight, where about 60% of America’s preschool-age children participated in center-based preschool programs. Statistically, not much has changed since then.

The study was conducted in the first place due to rising concerns regarding preventable diet-and-exercise-related health disorders, particularly the scary increases we’ve been seeing in morbid obesity and diabetes among children. These are the same concerns that prompted us to develop our Learn & Grow Educational Series.

The study determined that most activities in the preschool setting are adult-initiated, occur indoors, and are primarily sedentary (94% sedentary and 1% moderate to vigorous physical activity). It also found that, when preschoolers are outdoors, child-initiated activities are 1.39 more likely to involve moderate to vigorous physical activity than adult-initiated activities and that activities that involve ball and object play are more likely to result in moderate to vigorous physical activities than other outdoor activities.

Moderate to vigorous physical activities provide more health benefits than sedentary and light physical activities. It appears that preschool-age children are innately inclined to seek moderate to vigorous physical activity, which is a function of their developmental stage. Forcing them to sit in chairs most of the day flies in the face of their current stage of development. It’s also where the patterns of a sedentary, desk-bound lifestyle begin.

The overall perspective asserted by the study is that adults in preschool settings initiate far more sedentary activities than nonsedentary activities and that the degree of moderate to vigorous activity necessary to the physical well-being of preschool students is not being sufficiently promoted by the adults in preschool settings. As we attempt to shape students’ behaviors in order to make them fit the classroom environment, we need to be asking ourselves what the long-term outcomes of these relatively short-term fixes really are.

In the interest of making our classrooms immediately manageable given how the education system is currently configured, we’re expecting even our littlest students to abandon the natural processes of their development to accommodate a dysfunctional bureaucracy and, if they can’t turn off their development and accommodate the adults, we punish them for “misbehavior” in the classroom. Punishing a young child for being wiggly is like shooting the sky in retaliation for daring to be blue. Preschoolers being wiggly is a function of their development, not an act of defiance.

I would argue that the reduction of physical activity in learning environments is not limited to preschoolers. It also may very well reflect that the adults are adjusting the activity levels for our youngest learners based on the lagging stamina of the adults rather than the developmental needs of the children.

I’m all for making life easier for the adults so long as it is not at the expense of student learning or welfare, but what is happening appears to be the creation of droves of morbidly obese, diabetic couch-potatoes, not the future leaders this nation will require. When an educational institution becomes more about accommodating the demands of the adults who work within it than the educational needs of its students, the train has gone way off the tracks.

The warning I took from this journal article, in combination with my other research and field experiences, is that if we don’t start introducing physical activity into our academic instruction from the very beginning, we are attempting to build our children’s minds at the expense of their bodies. According to data reported by Jaime Oliver’s Food Revolution, diet-related health disorders now cost the United States more of its healthcare costs than do tobacco-related health disorders and are epidemic among both adults and children.

It doesn’t help our students to turn them into brilliant knowledge workers only for them to die of a heart attack or stroke by the age of 35, nor does this benefit society. Further, poorly nourished children do not learn as well, so there’s no guarantee that we’re turning our unhealthy children into brilliant anythings. It also doesn’t help to bifurcate exercise from all other normal daily activities, as though exercise should be an activity separate from everything else we do.

People avoid exercise for its own sake because it’s boring and difficult, but exercise embedded in a task that a person is otherwise motivated to do doesn’t seem like exercise at all. Lifting weights and tossing around bags of soil for a vegetable garden accomplish pretty much the same ends, exercise-wise; the difference is that gardening also produces healthy food where exercise for its own sake often just produces gym fees in addition to the health benefits of exercise. There was a time when people got their exercise naturally just by taking care of their daily business. You can’t do that sitting at a computer (or a desk in a classroom) all day.

Laying the foundation for a healthy lifestyle is best achieved during a child’s early formative years. The flip side of that is what happens to kids when the foundation that is laid promotes unhealthy rather than healthy habits, which all comes back to how the adults involved have set up a child’s immediate environments and the messages those environments send to the child about what is appropriate and acceptable behavior. Changing deeply ingrained unhealthy eating and activity habits learned early in life is usually extremely difficult.

The lack of physical activity embedded in academics can become particularly concerning for many students in special education programs where so much of their time is spent receiving specialized academic instruction and therapeutic services in small classroom settings. Parents and educators need to ensure that IEPs and 504 plans contain language that speaks to each child’s respective individualized needs regarding health and exercise, in addition to academics and any educationally necessary therapies.

An adaptive physical education (APE) assessment can be done to determine what a child’s needs for physical activity per his/her IEP should be and written into the document as measurable annual goals and services, just like for academics and therapies. To be clear, however, this is only true if the disability impacts physical performance of the kinds of physical feats one must accomplish in a general education PE class.

APE is not where you stick all the kids with disabilities who present with behavioral challenges in general ed PE class; that situation calls for behavior services where APE is for kids who can’t physically participate in regular PE, even with all kinds of supports and services, due to physical or neurological challenges. Kids on 504 plans can also get APE services and/or accommodations for PE; Section 504 just doesn’t mandate annual goals.

With preschoolers, the lack of regulations related to education in general, much less physical fitness at school, becomes a problem for many children. While 60% of our nation’s children are now participating in preschool, because participation in preschool is not part of our compulsory attendance laws for public education, public schools are not required to create preschool programs. Many, in fact, do not. Most preschoolers in the United States attend either private preschools or Head Start programs.

This becomes problematic for special education students in preschool because it becomes very difficult to place these students in classes with their typical peers if there are no classes of typical peers in their school districts within which they may be placed. They often end up in highly specialized self-contained classrooms, instead, which are even more likely to involve mostly indoor sedentary or minimally physical activities than classrooms of typically developing preschoolers.

Embedding physical activities into academic instruction is an important aspect that I think gets lost in all the discussions of PE classes, fitness tests, and whatnot. The fitness tests used to promote PE in public schools do not take into account diet in any serious regard, and I think that’s very telling, as well. To the extent that diet is discussed, it is largely with respect to personal food choices made outside of the school setting with no discussion of what is being served in the cafeteria and the degree to which it is actually healthy.

It’s not hard to embed physical activities into academic instruction when you are using project-based learning strategies, such as those we use in our Learn & Grow Educational Series. The physical tasks associated with building and maintaining a self-watering container garden, while pretty easy to do, still make physical movement part of the academic task.

I also think student nutrition is lobbied by certain interests as something beyond the measure and control of the public schools, which is silly. It also begs the question, “Who the heck benefits from it being this way?” to which my response is “Follow the money and whoever has most of it is whoever is benefiting the most from things being they way they are and who is most likely to invest his/her resources in keeping things that way.” It appears if you follow the money that the beneficiary is largely the commercial processed food industry.

Millions of school-age kids throughout the United States are dependent upon food at school to keep from starving, which is provided by commercial for-profit vendors who will skimp on product quality to boost profits, more often than not. We already have a system of food distribution to children within the public education setting. Educators have known for decades the important relationship between child nutrition and child mental availability for learning. The issue is that, just as with enforceable instructional standards, the enforceable nutritional standards in our public schools are low and profit-minded individuals have found a way to exploit this situation for their own financial gain.

This nation’s school food programs, by and large, are collectively a national embarrassment with respect to nutrition, though some schools are now participating in some really exciting changes that include school-based fruit and vegetable gardening by the students to supply their school cafeterias. This addresses the issues of physical activity during the school day as well as the supply of healthy fruits and vegetables for students to eat.

There are no enforceable educational standards for preschoolers with respect to diet and exercise at all. For students with special needs, this can include serious diet-related disorders. Gastrointestinal issues are very common among children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs), for example. ASDs are estimated by the U.S. Center for Disease Control to occur 1 out of 68 children.

In the preschool, kindergarten, and early elementary years, during which kids are most ripe for establishing proper foundations for learning of all types, including the development of healthy habits around eating and exercise, we are, instead, undermining their development for the rest of their lives. That’s not what I want my tax dollars spent on, but here we all are, nonetheless.

It is unfair and unrealistic to shove the entire burden onto the shoulders of the public education system to do the job that it takes an entire village to do. There has to be collaboration between parents, educators, and community leaders on these issues to find appropriate solutions.

In the meantime, KPS4Parents continues to develop its Learn & Grow Educational Series, including its content for preschoolers. Parents can see our content for kids ages 2-7 to help them starting laying that foundation of healthy food and exercise habits for their young children by putting in their own family self-watering container gardens.

This article's author: Anne Zachry (4 Posts)

Anne M. Zachry, MA, has worked as a child and family advocate in the public education arena since 1991 and as a paralegal in education-related litigation since 2005. She also holds a master's degree in educational psychology with a specific emphasis on human development across the lifespan, effective instructional practices, the science of learning, and educational program evaluation.


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Anne Zachry

Anne M. Zachry, MA, has worked as a child and family advocate in the public education arena since 1991 and as a paralegal in education-related litigation since 2005. She also holds a master's degree in educational psychology with a specific emphasis on human development across the lifespan, effective instructional practices, the science of learning, and educational program evaluation.

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