It may just be impossible to take seriously what Washington Post reporters write in their blogs.
Jay Mathews, the Post’s education reporter, says the “Healthy Schools” initiative introduced recently in the D.C. Council makes a big mistake by requiring the city’s children to engage in more physical activity. How, Matthews wonders, will they ever have time to learn reading and math?
Matthews, a veteran reporter, seems to have thought this over for about 10 seconds and gives no particular evidence for his conclusion other than what he thinks some teachers might feel about sacrificing class time so that kids can get more exercise.
The “Healthy Schools” bill, introduced jointly by Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray as a means of addressing childhood obesity and wellness, would require that all public school children in Kindergarten through grade five receive a minimum 30 minutes physical education a day. Kids in grades six through eight would get 45 minutes. At least half of that time would consist of actual physical activity.
In fact, there is a large body of evidence showing that additional PE won’t hurt, and might actually improve academic performance. For instance, an extensively documented article in the most recent edition of Educational Leadership (membership required) reports:
* Researchers in Australia studied 350 5th graders. They increased physical education by 210 minutes per week for some students, and after 14 weeks found “no significant differences in math or reading…”
* A California investigation of an intensive, two-year program in seven schools that more than doubled physical education among elementary students found no adverse affect on overall achievement nor specific achievement in language arts and reading.
* A Michigan study of 214 61th graders enrolled in physical education found they had very similar test scores compared to other students, even though they spent nearly an hour less in class.
* A study involving 287 4th and 5th graders in British Columbia in 10 elementary schools found they scored just as well in math and reading on standardized tests even though they spent 50 more minutes per week in physical activity as students in control groups.
* A study involving 500 Virginia elementary schools found that decreasing time spent in physical education, music and art did not improve academic achievement.
* A Canadian study of 546 students in grades two through six who received an additional one hour per day of physical education found they earned better grades in French, math, English and science.
* The U.S. Centers for Disease Control, studying two national samples involving some 5,316 elementary school students, found that girls who participated in physical education for 70 or more minutes per week had “significantly higher achievement scores” in math and reading. Among boys, neither more nor less physical activity seemed to make a difference in success in the classroom.
* An analysis of fitness testing results from more than 800,000 students in California revealed “a signification positive correlation” between physical fitness and performance on tests in reading and math.
“In a nutshell,” the article concludes, “physically active, fit youth are more likely to have better grades and test scores than their inactive counterparts.”
The real problem for some of us is that by focusing so intently on test scores–and especially since the advent of “No Child Left Behind”– schools have cut back on truly valuable activities such as physical education, music, art, social studies, sports.
My business is food, not PE. But as the parent of a 10-year-old enrolled in a D.C. public school, I say the more physical activity, the better. It does not follow that keeping kids in class longer each day will make them smarter. In our experience, a healthy, active child–a child given plenty of time to run around and build body as well as brain–is readier to learn than one who’s been sitting around an her butt all day.
For another overview of how exercise helps school performance, read this report (pdf) from the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation.