Desk Set: Kids’ Play Takes a Seat

If I ask you what comes to mind when I say the words, “elementary school,” your mind will likely flood with images of children seated at desks, teachers with chalk in hand, and giant-lined note paper filled with uneven, scribbly letters.

That is an accurate representation of school life for most American children, with many hours of the day spent indoors doing seat work. The great majority of learning is done through some form of technology or another, if we use the word “technology” in a broad sense. Children are tied to man-made tools—desks, classrooms, workbooks, and yes, even iPads and desktops—that, by their nature, restrict physical activity. If these tools are the primary avenue through which we pass knowledge to the next generation, then motor skills and hands-on learning are seen as extraneous. Recess time is approached as a break from all the learning—an opportunity for the children to get their wiggles out. Indeed, students do have wiggles that need to be “gotten out,” but maybe it’s in these breaks from the classroom where the most important learning actually happens.

“For optimum development, children need learning philosophy, environments, and practices that are child-centered (as opposed to adult-centric) open-ended (as opposed to rigidly-defined), hands-on (as opposed to conceptual),” says Eric Nelson, co-founder of the Child Education Center in La Canada, California. “They need to be physically active to facilitate comprehensive brain development.”

Even if school administrators and teachers know this (and I’m betting they do), they are in the unfortunate position of answering to government standards and testing above all else. We’ve created a system that puts the physical needs of children on the back burner in the name of academic achievement. As the mother of an elementary student, that really freaks me out. What is it about turning five years old that suddenly turns the changes of play from an essential learning activity into a privilege? Are our fancy teaching tools really that important?

In his 2007 article for the American Academy of Pediatrics, Kenneth Ginsburg agrees. “Play is important to healthy brain development.” Citing the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 as a possible cause, he goes on to note that many elementary schools have reduced time previously dedicated to creative arts and physical education in order to focus on reading and math. “This change may have implications on children’s ability to store new information, because children’s cognitive capacity is enhanced by a clear-cut and significant change in activity,” Ginsburg says. And shifting focus from math to history isn’t enough. Kids need movement, stimuli, and interaction. “Even a formal structured physical education class may not offer the same benefit as free-play recess.”

Not only do extended desk hours negatively affect cognitive development, lack of exposure to sunlight deprives kids of Vitamin D, which is vital for proper immune system function, bone health, and even prevention of chronic immune and cardiovascular diseases later in life.

In our passion for education, we are robbing our children of their health and capacity to learn. In our zeal to use technology to teach students more efficiently, we are teaching them less effectively.

There is something wrong in a society where schools are forced to introduce stand-up desks and wiggle seats in order to retain kids’ attention. There’s something wrong when kindergartners miss out on recess because they can’t sit still in class. Children have ways of getting what they need, and maybe we’re having to make these accommodations because what children need most is play.

“They need the other elements to fully engage the entirety of their being and to begin to realize their full potential,” Nelson says. “Confining children to desks deprives them of the very activities they need for healthy development and confines them to a model of learning where you have to please the teacher to be a good learner. The idea that children under the age of eight to nine learn more at a desk indicates a profound misunderstanding of child development, how children learn, what children need to learn, and the damage to young children undergoing forced curriculum that is developmentally inappropriate.”

Classroom_iStock_Wavebreakmedia_900 / Wavebreakmedia

We push our toddlers to potty train faster, our kindergarteners to read sooner, our freshmen to prep for the SATs. This drive to keep up with the over-achieving Joneses has driven us to a place where our children are overweight, hyperactive, and honestly not even doing so hot, academically speaking. According to Pearson, the US ranks 14th out of 40 countries in cognitive skills and educational attainment, yet a 2013 report from The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development showed that we spend more on education than other developed nations. What if it’s not about the amount of money we spend on the kids as much as it is the amount of time we allow them to play?

“I do believe being stuck indoors is harmful for children,” says Deborah Hale, who has taught in Pre-K through fourth grade classrooms for 30 years and is now owner and director of The Inside Outside School in Pflugerville, Texas. “In my experience children can get apathetic from doing paper/pencil tasks instead of having direct experience and exploration. There seems to be a greater risk of depression because of less natural light and a lack of fun in their life which is an important need that can be overlooked in high stakes education.”

All right, so I’ve loaded you down with expert opinions and facts. So what? Our education system isn’t perfect, but what can a parent do about it? Well you may have more power than you think. Without our children in attendance, there is no education system. Without our tax dollars and tuition payments, there are no schools. Indeed, you are paying for that classroom computer and that little desk your child is confined to for far too many hours in a day. If you’re lucky, there’s a play- and/or nature-based school you can switch to. If you’re lucky, there’s a low-tech option nearby. But for many of us, that’s not the reality. You can remove your child from the system and home-school (or even un-school, if your state allows), or you can use your voice to make the system better. Many states have no legal requirements when it comes to recess and how much children should be allowed, but parents can and are making a difference.

Earlier this year, a group of about 30 moms campaigned to raise support for a Florida bill that would guarantee their children 20 minutes of uninterrupted play every day. Play that could not be taken away for academic or disciplinary reasons. They spoke before a Florida House education panel, which passed the bill unanimously. It has yet to pass the Florida Senate, but these moms are being heard and bringing this issue to the nation’s attention.

Do you know what the laws are in your state? If your state does require children be given a certain amount of recess every day, it’s up to you to hold the school accountable. Ask your kids if they missed any recess or PE. Ask your child’s teacher about his or her stance on the matter.

It’s unfortunate that parents would have to go to such lengths to guarantee 20 minutes of—let’s call it what it is—education in a school day. It’s a travesty that we’ve robbed our children of so much childhood. It’s time we gave it back.