Archive for the ‘Child Obesity’ Category

School recess remains one of the favourite times of the day for most elementary school students. Until recently, it was also a largely forgotten part of school life. With the advent of the overprotected kid” and the spread of campaigns against bullying, obesity, and boredom, recess has become a hot topic for public discussion.  Many school administrators and psychologists now see ‘free play’ at recess to be dangerous and threatening, especially for marginalized or bullied kids.  A new breed of North American parents, armed with Lenore Skenazy’s 2010 best seller, Free-Range Kids, have risen in defense of  unstructured ‘free play’ as a critical component in the education of healthy, happy and creative children.

RecessBoyRecessSceneThree years ago, in November 2011, a St. Catharines, Ontario, elementary school hit the news by banning balls from recess after a child bystander was hit on the head on the playground. After an enterprising 10-year-old boy, Mathew Taylor, voiced his objections, started a petition, and secured a meeting with the principal, Lockview Public School rescinded the ball ban.  Mathew’s parents, Scott and Angela Taylor, only learned about the protest after the children had booked the meeting with the school principal. Banning balls at recess, in their view, was not only “a bit of an overreaction” but also a symptom of school boards “over-regulating the playground out of fear of lawsuits.”

Today’s school psychologists view the world through a child protection lens and tend to be hyper sensitive to the dangers lurking in and around schools, particularly on the playgrounds.  A recent CBC News report, aired in September 2013, only stoked those fears. “More than 28,000 children are injured every year on playgrounds across Canada, ” CBC reported, “and the rate of hospitalizations has gone up eight per cent between 2007 and 2012.”

Student injuries and accidents are upsetting — and their impact should not be minimized.  Since the 1970s, however, the Safe Playground movement has all but eliminated “Adventure  Playgrounds” and any equipment deemed dangerous, yet the incidence of accidents has remained essentially unchanged. One of Canada’s leading experts on playgrounds, Alex Smith, Founder of PlayGroundology, corroborates this, noting that he cannot recall one serious accident on Halifax’s 400 playgrounds over the past five years.

Public concern about children’s health and safety, according to British child health researcher Tim Gill, does not reflect the real level of risk. In his 2007 book, No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk-Averse Society, Gill points out that children are no more likely to be abducted or murdered than they were 30 years ago.  In 1971, some four out of five British kids aged 7 or 8 years walked or biked to school on their own; today fewer than one in ten do so.  Fear of being sued, he concedes, is a much bigger factor affecting the policies of school districts and providers of facilities for children.

School recess has been significantly eroded in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Since the 1970s and particularly so in the past two decades, school districts in the U.S. and Britain have reduced or eliminated recess time in order to allow for more instructional time.  Children have lost about 12 hours a week of free time, including a 25% reduction in play time and a 50% decrease in unstructured outdoor activities. In 2011, a U.S. study reported that only 57% of  school districts required regularly scheduled recess and some 40% of districts were either eliminating recess or considering such action.

Crusaders for “Free-Range Kids” such as American journalist Hanna Rosin do tend to wear ‘rose-coloured-glasses’ when it comes to minimizing the risks to children in completely unstructured free play environments.  More sensible child’s play advocates, like Megan Rosker, who campaigned to restore recess at her local Redington Shores, Florida school, see the need for some limits on “unstructured play” at elementary schools. “We need to strive for a more balanced parenting approach, ” she wrote  in November 2014, where “kids are receiving … free play, devoid of screen time,” and also “a lot of form and structure in their day” to enable them to go on to inventive, satisfying and  productive lives.

New research initiated by Brock University’s Dr. Lauren McNamara and generated by her “Recess Project” holds promise for breaking the impasse.  Her three year study from 2011 to 2014 demonstrated that most of today’s children have “forgotten how to play,” particularly outdoors.  While McNamara and her research team see the need for “free time” in a world where kids are highly programmed, they claim that there is a critical need to “re-teach kids” how to play, particularly during regular recess times.  Based upon local Niagara Region case studies, they show how activity levels soar and fighting subsides when new playground equipment is added and yard supervisors or junior leaders provide guidance to promote physical exercise, active engagement, and fair play among the kids.

Achieving the right balance is not as easy as outside experts might expect.  The Peel Region recess program, Playground Activity Leaders in Schools Program (PALS), initiated by a Toronto region health authority and touted by McNamara, is an attempt to move in that direction.  With a deft and diplomatic approach, it shows promise for reducing the incidence of bullying and inappropriate behaviour and increasing levels of physical activity, particularly among kids from grades 5 to 8.  Under certain types of administrative direction, it will quickly devolve into adults or their young surrogates “micromanaging recess.”

School recess is now under closer scrutiny and social psychologists are at work to either revamp “free play” or to eliminate the “free break time” altogether.  What is threatening recess in Canadian, British, and American schools?  Is unstructured free play for children endangered in today’s risk-averse society?  Is it possible to reform school recess to strike a balance between freedom and purposeful form?


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Canadian children are suffering from a near epidemic of inactivity that is now reflected in rising obesity rates. Physical inactivity, online adolescence, and poor eating habits have now also been linked to weaker academic performance. A ground breaking series, Fit to Learn, in The Globe and Mail (May 23-29, 2012) put the issue of children’s health squarely on the public agenda.  The dire state of Physical Education programs, alarming rates of child obesity, the ineffectiveness of Healthy Schools policies, and report card BMI fitness grades were all aired out in the series. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/education/war-on-child-obesity-out-of-the-cafeteria-and-onto-the-playground/article4209692/

What came out of the series of in-depth reports?  An Editorial entitled “Obesity obsession,‘ (29 May 2012) that offered a sobering message to Healthy Schools crusaders in Canada’s provincial education systems.  After noting that the schools had “enough on their plates,” the Editors claimed that “the emphasis on the school’s role is overdone.”  Many schools were already doing a great deal, but “the role of the schools is not to perfect children.” In short, what the schools teach has to be reinforced at home.


A local battle over a Cake Walk fundraiser, sparked by Halifax-area mother Pamela Lovelace, erupted in early June when the Education Department  issued a new set of guidelines which prohibited a traditional Maritime tradition of  parent association “cake walks” in which calorie-laden cakes are raffled-off to raise money. Her little protest generated quite a groundswell of support, all focused on resistance to Nova Scotia’s school nutrition policy.  Eventually, Minister of Education Ramona Jennex was forced to backtrack in an attempt to calm the waters.  http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/parenting/the-fight-to-keep-cake-in-the-classroom/article4240139/

With the controversy still swirling, Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter ( June 7, 2012) announced Thrive! , a glitzy $2 million Healthy Living initiative, focusing on combating child obesity, introducing compulsory PE classes, more nutrition programs, and a war on junk food.  http://thechronicleherald.mobi/novascotia/104665-ns-to-spend-2-million-to-fight-childhood-obesity  That initiative came on the heals of an earlier Ontario initiative in September 2011 which clamped down on unhealthy foods and beverages, while allowing up to 10 school days where students can hold pizza sales and even chocolate bar drives.

Fighting child obesity is a worthy cause, but most of the school-based initiatives are merely more of the same, albeit better funded and more targeted than the first wave of Healthy Schools policy activity some five or six years ago. If there is a glimmer of hope for this to work, it will take a larger project aimed at building healthier communities rather than another well-intended effort seeking to impose a new layer of provincial regulation, from cradle to grave.

Nova Scotia’s Thrive! initiative is one of the first to recognize that only a province-wide health and wellness project will make any dent in the problem.  It was announced by the Premier, along with Health Nova Scotia and four provincial departments, in a show of force.   It was mounted using an innovative strategy known as “collective impact” recognizing that no government initiative stands any chance of succeeding unless it is inter-departmental and forges new alliances. http://www.ssireview.org/pdf/2011_WI_Feature_Kania.pdf

The Nova Scotia Healthy Living project is unique in another respect — it is beginning to connect the dots.  No provincial initiative to combat child obesity will work unless it addresses the underlying structural problems, including the brute logic of school consolidation and the siting of schools farther and farther away from children and neighbourhood communities.

Designing and building communities for active healthy living will require a seismic shift in school planning and the siting of schools.  Ten years ago, Noreen C. MacDonald’s study of Active Transportation to School for U.S. students (1969-2001) reported that the number of students walking to school had declined from 40.7% to 12.9 %.  http://dot.ga.gov/localgovernment/FundingPrograms/srts/Documents/news/Trends_Among_US_School_Children.pdf

School siting by education facilities planners has been identified as a major contributing factor.  A ground breaking U.S. EPA study in October 2003, Travel and Environmental Implications of School Siting, identified planning of schools and growing walking distances as a critical strategic issue, with educational, environmental and health implications, as well as financial ones, for the future of communities.  Since 1945, the EPA reported that the number of American public schools had declined by 70 per cent while average school size grew fivefold, from 127 to 653. “School proximity matters,” the report claimed, and bigger schools meant fwer kids walking and longer bus rides, all with serious impacts on air emissions and physical health.  It strongly recommended that travel time to school be elevated to a higher level in state and district school planning.

Today’s child obesity epidemic is shining new light on the way communities are designed and the importance of promoting “active living among children.”  Since the advent of the Internet and video games, kids spend, in the words of Nova Scotia’s CMOH, Dr. Robert Strang,  “too much time sitting” before, during, and after school hours.  “A walkable neighbourhood” is fast becoming the most desirable community for children as well as adults because it encourages everyone to “walk or bike” from home to school to workplace.  Oddly enough, it may take a looming health crisis to restore small community schools to their rightful place in public education and to end those long bus rides to school. “Big box schools, ” Dr. Strang and others are saying, “are unhealthy places.”

What can be done to combat the rise of child obesity among Canadian children and teens?  Are Healthy Schools policies and banning junk food at lunchtime  part of the problem — or the solution?  Will it take a looming public health crisis among today’s younger generation to snap provincial politicians and school board administrators out of their daze?  When will education policy makers wake up to the long-term  impact of school consolidation and long bus rides on children, adults, and community life?

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