What the Health?

Today, on  World Health Day, I submitted this letter (but as a more abbreviated essay version) to the Edmonton Journal (I’ll let you know if and when it gets published…) regarding the place of HEALTH in our Education curriculum. Until then, enjoy it here! It is Alberta, Canada focused but hopefully the content and references can be useful in your jurisdiction as well! Onward and upward.

An Open Letter to our Premier and Ministers of Education and Health

Dear Honourable Premier Notley and Honourable Ministers Eggen and Hoffman,

As you well know, Alberta Education is currently revising the K-12 curriculum for all subject areas. According to the website[1]:

We are looking ahead to the future and working to ensure that provincial curriculum continues to give all students the best possible start in life and meet the demands of living in the 21st century. …placing a greater emphasis on 21st century competencies and literacy and numeracy across subjects and grades. This approach will help build an even stronger foundation for student success in a dynamic, global society and economy.

While literacy and numeracy are fundamental elements of any education system there is another element that is glaringly missing. Health. If we truly desire ‘student success in a dynamic, global society and economy’ we cannot afford to ignore the foundational role of health in today’s increasingly sedentary, inactive and unhealthy society. I am writing to all three of you because we should be long past the days of segregating education and health. Therefore, from both a health and education perspective, here are five reasons to re-imagine the value and purpose of health and physical education in schools.

  1. In 2002, the United Nations stated[2]: “Literacy is crucial to the acquisition, by every child, youth and adult, of essential life skills that enable them to address the challenges they can face in life, and represents an essential step in basic education, which is an indispensable means for effective participation in the societies and economies of the 21st century.” What this means is that literacy is no longer limited to ‘reading and writing’. Physical literacy and health literacy are critical elements of education that help address societal challenges and teach essential life skills for effective citizenship.
  2. Therefore, physical and health literacy are just as important for the development of contributing citizens as ‘traditional’ literacy and numeracy. While Alberta students consistently score well among developed nations in PISA[3] tests (2nd in Sciences, 3rd in Reading and 14th in Math) where we’re falling down is health. Canada was ranked 17th out of 29 ‘rich nations’ for overall child wellbeing in a 2013 UNICEF report[4]. We need to pay more attention to health in our curriculum and give it equal priority with literacy and numeracy.
  3. Our kids aren’t healthy. The 2017 ParticipAction Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth[5] found that of children aged 5-17: only 9% get 60 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity; only 24% meet the guidelines of no more than 2 hours of recreational screen-time per day and 33% have trouble falling asleep. Add to this what we know about deteriorating mental health (which physical activity also addresses) and decreased nutrition for kids and we are in trouble. Big trouble. Still want to marginalize health and physical education?
  4. Health and education are inextricably linked. The more educated you are, the healthier you are. And, the healthier you are the more educated you’ll be! Over and over again, the data says that if you add more physical education in the day it won’t lower your academic scores[6]. As an example, girls who had physical education for 70 or more minutes per week attained significantly higher reading and mathematics scores than did girls with 35 or fewer minutes per week[7]. Alberta has surpassed the $20 billion mark – almost 40% of our provincial budget – in health spending[8]. Now more than ever, we need to invest in our future – a healthy future. Investing NOW in healthy schools, including prioritizing health and physical education, can save millions in future health costs[9].
  5. The whole child. In health and physical education we teach students to understand and take care of their own bodies, to make informed decisions and lead healthy active lives. This knowledge and application is essential to becoming a contributing citizen of Alberta and the world. In physical education, we teach students to move with confidence and competence in a variety of environments. As well, movement is essential to who we are as human beings; it is absolutely critical to growth and development across the lifespan. The health and academic benefits of physical education are important, but are truly just an extension of how movement is part of our human identity and helps us negotiate the diverse terrain of life. Therefore, education should not be considered “whole-child” unless it includes education of the physical. “…physical education is important because movement is joyful, pleasurable, provides intrinsic satisfaction, and can be personally meaningful and central to the human experience”[10].

Premier Notley, Minister Eggen and Minister Hoffman, as we continue down the road of curriculum re-design, I challenge you to follow the evidence and prioritize health. Implementation of a quality health and physical education curriculum is the BEST way to ensure that ALL students have the opportunity to be well: now and for the future.

[1] https://education.alberta.ca/curriculum-development/why-change-curriculum/

[2] http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/themes/education-building-blocks/literacy/un-literacy-decade/un-resolutions-and-other-related-documents/

[3] http://www.cmec.ca/508/Programs-and-Initiatives/Assessment/Programme-for-International-Student-Assessment-(PISA)/PISA-2015/index.html

[4] https://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/pdf/rc11_eng.pdf

[5] https://www.participaction.com/en-ca/thought-leadership/report-card/2016

[6] Sallis, J.F., McKenzie, T.L., Kolody, B., Lewis, M., Marshall, S., & Rosengard, P. (1999). Effects  of health related physical education on academic achievement: Project SPARK. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 70(2),127-134.

Shephard, R.J. (1996). Habitual physical activity and academic performance. Nutrition Reviews,   54(4), S32-S36.

Trudeau, F., & Shephard, R. J. (2008). Physical education, school physical activity, school sports and academic performance. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 5(1), 1.

[7] Carlson, S.A., Fulton, J.E., Lee, S.M., Maynard, M., Brown, D.R., Kohl, III, H.W, & Dietz, W.H. (2008). Physical education and academic achievement in elementary school: Data from the early childhood longitudinal study. American Journal of Public Health, 98(4), 721-727

[8] http://edmontonjournal.com/news/politics/alberta-health-spending-rises-over-20-billion-even-as-province-tries-to-bend-the-cost-curve

[9] Tran BX, Ohinmaa A, Kuhle S, Johnson JA, Veugelers PJ (2014) Life Course Impact of School-Based Promotion of Healthy Eating and Active Living to Prevent Childhood Obesity. PLoS ONE 9(7): e102242. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102242

[10] Blankenship, B.T. & Ayers, S.F. (2010). The role of PETE in developing joy-oriented physical educators. Quest, 60, 171-183.

 

Cuts like a knife – but it feels so…

Wrong. It feels wrong.keep-kids-playing-sports

The following is the ‘non-edited for newspaper’ version of an OpEd that @Lauren_Sulz and @LouiseHumbert and I wrote for the Edmonton Journal’s Opinion Page. (Image to the right is from Active for Life – more good reading over there!)

The first time you get cut from a team sucks. The second time is probably no better, but many kids will not ever bother to try out again. And yes, we’ve heard the ‘…but Michael Jordan was cut from HIS high school team and look where he ended up.’ mantra. Regardless of your perspective, cutting kids from sports is controversial and we seem to be staring at each other across a chasm of:

“It builds character – kids these days need to toughen up.” “It’s life – not everyone makes the team.”

OR

“Everyone has the right to play.” “It turns kids off of sport, for life.”

As professionals in physical education who have played and coached sport at a variety of levels, we wanted to take a closer look at the practices of de-selecting (cutting) kids in sport – particularly in school. Perhaps we could begin to bridge the chasm and find out how we can help coaches and kids – maybe even make a painful process less so. Since we also happen to be researchers, we designed a study to do so – go figure! We talked to young athletes who had been cut from a sports team in the past and their parents (52 one-on-one discussions) and surveyed coaches and athletic directors (1667 in total!). Our goals were to understand, from multiple perspectives, the experience of being cut and to find strategies that may ease the stress of this practice and encourage kids to keep playing.

In short, we found out some interesting stuff. First off, de-selection cuts deep. There are negative emotional, social and physical consequences. Athletes lose friends and are forced to find new social circles. They question their own identities and can feel lost and adrift. Perhaps quite obviously, their self-esteem is shaken. Time spent being physically active is reduced – not being on the team means no more practices and games. Cutting also deterred athletes from future participation in the same sport. As well, when no specific feedback was provided as to why athletes were cut there was a tendency to assume a low level of skill and a prediction of future failure. The same results happened when athletes were given feedback about things they can’t change like, ‘You’re too short’.

For coaches, regardless of the way cuts were communicated, our study found four factors that can improve the experience. Immediacy (don’t make them wait!), privacy (please don’t tell them in front of the whole group), encouragement (provide options for continuing to improve in the sport) and expectations (be clear up front about what you are looking for and the process of making the team). As well, the athletes themselves told us that the best way to help them cope with being cut is to provide clear reasons in a face-to-face meeting. In these meetings, coaches can keep things candid and up front by:

  • Stating the outcome right away – don’t beat around the bush.
  • Tell athletes why they were cut – specific, personal explanations.
  • Provide actionable feedback – things athletes can actually improve.
  • Write it up – eliminate miscommunication or misperceptions.

We shared these results on the Canadian Sport for Life blog (http://canadiansportforlife.ca/blog/easing-pain-cutting-kids-sport-are-there-best-practices-dr-lauren-sulz) and were blown away by the attention it garnered – over 10,000+ views of the page and counting. More significantly, we began to receive emails from people who took the time to share their experiences and stories with us:

From a coach (and parent):

“I appreciated your article, and it’s quite timely for me, I am faced with two sessions of cuts from a Pee Wee A Provincial hockey team, and not looking forward to it at all.”

After a detailed explanation of the hockey world, evaluation, coaching and communicating to parents, this reader finished with:

“Looks like I’ve worked through a lot of frustrations – you don’t even have to answer me, doc, I’ll do it for you: ‘In evaluating these young athletes, you tried your best, buddy, and that’s the most important thing.  Don’t give up trying to get better, though.’ Thanks again for the article, I can say your interview and survey efforts will positively affect lots of 11 and 12 year olds this season!”

From a parent:

“I just read your article and I wanted to tell you about my son’s experience in tryouts. My son is 8 (that’s right, only 8) he was on a Tier 1 team.  His team was really good and then after the season, they had tryouts for the next season.  The tryouts were two 1-hour tryout sessions.  At the end of the 2nd day, all of the players were called into a circle around the coaches.  If you made one of the teams, your name was called and you were given a piece of paper to give to your parents to register you for the team.  After all of the papers were given out, the rest were told they did not make a team.  So my son and his teammates that made the team were all cheering wildly. A couple of boys from his team did not make the roster of the new team.  They just sat there while the rest of their old teammates screamed with joy. This made me sick.”

The same parent went on to say,

“I wrote to you in part because I feel so powerless.  I need to vent about this.  I know that how the kids are being treated is wrong, but that if I complain my son could suffer consequences of being the son of a ‘trouble maker’. Please use my story and I hope that it can save some kids from experiencing what the kids trying out for my son’s team face.”

We are incredibly frustrated and saddened by the fact that 8 year olds, 11 year olds and others are being cut from teams each and every sport season. Come on Canada, we need to do better. We aren’t saying that there should never be cuts for some teams. There is a time and a place. But that time and place should not indicate an END of sport participation. It is obvious to us that the conversation around cutting kids in sport – especially at the developmental level – MUST continue. Canadian kids are less active and less healthy than ever before. Sport can provide quality physical, social and emotional experiences – learning skills and concepts that last a lifetime. Do we want more kids playing sports? If the answer is yes, then sport organizations at all levels need to examine their practices to ensure opportunities for as many kids as possible.

We’d love for you to contribute to the conversation at: Share Your Team Selection Experiences

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If you want to hear a little more, listen to the recording from a local call-in radio show featuring this article . Thanks to @Albertaatnoon for having me on! Good chat.

 

 

Something is very wrong…

I recently became aware of two very different stories about children and physical activity. The first was a Facebook video of a young kid cruising around in a parkour gym. If you haven’t seen it – check it out – it is worth the 1:14 min. What a great place for kids to play, learn and move! Check out the movement skills of that boy! And, kudos to the wonderful instructor leading the class – love the clip with the kids jumping to a box and grabbing his feet for stability.

A couple days later and this story hits the inter-web: School district bans game of tag to ‘ensure physical, emotional safety of students’. (Spoiler alert: tag is now back at Mercer Island School District after the outcry – yay.). The rationale given by the communications director was:

“The Mercer Island School District and school teams have recently revisited expectations for student behavior to address student safety. This means while at play, especially during recess and unstructured time, students are expected to keep their hands to themselves. The rationale behind this is to ensure the physical and emotional safety of all students.banning-tag

Let me go out on a limb here (properly harnessed in, of course) and let you know what probably happened.

Random kid: Julie pushed me.

Other random kid: Ryan pushed me.

Not so random Principal: That’s it – no tag for anyone! Everyone must keep their hands to themselves. In fact, why don’t you sit on your hands all recess for good measure (ok, that part might not have happened).

Unfortunately, over the last few years there has been no shortage of these type of events:

This School Banned Cartwheels, Tag, Balls, Fun at Recess

The School That Won’t Let Students Play Tag or Hold Hands

Children Banned from Playing Tag in School Playground

Toronto School Bans Hard Balls

I could go on with even more, but I think you get my point.

From what I can tell, each of these “bans” springs from an incident or two where someone gets hurt (in the Toronto case it was a parent who got a concussion from being hit in the head with a soccer ball…). If this is the way we handle inappropriate behaviour in schools then would someone please answer these questions?

If a kid gets stuffed in a locker – do we ban all lockers from the school?

If a kid throws an eraser in class and hits another kid in the head (like my friend and I did to each other for most of grade 5…) – do we ban all erasers from the school?

If a group of kids is too rowdy when they work on problem solving in math class together – do we ban group work?

NO!

Why do school staff (and some parents) go for the kneejerk reaction and frickin’ ban everything? Why don’t they just do what they do in all these other cases and DEAL WITH THE PROBLEM. We have enough issues with children not moving enough, not engaging in free play and not interacting with each other enough without putting even more constraints on them…

If anything, we should have MORE active play and student interaction at recess – the Lord knows they spend enough time in front of screens not interacting. Hmmm, here’s an idea – how about MORE physical education classes taught by qualified, trained professionals who can help TEACH social skills and appropriate behaviours for playing together in and out of class. Booya (does anyone say that anymore?) – problem solved.

UnderPressureCarl Honore shares a story in his brilliant book (which you should buy), Under Pressure: Rescuing our children from the culture of hyper-parenting, from the Secret Garden nursery school in Eastern Scotland – the first outdoor nursery in Britain. A group of 3 year olds had spent the day in the woods; helped by the adult in charge, they built a fire to ward off the chill. Wee Magnus Macleod reached in with his bare hand and picked up a burning ember.

BAN fires! BAN bare hands! BAN outdoor nurseries! BAN three-year-olds!

Nope. Everyone stayed calm. Magnus’s wound healed. His mom kept him in the Secret Garden and also enrolled his younger brother. She said, “…the main thing is that Magnus is now very sensible about fire – he knows not to get too close to it. The truth is that there are risks in the world and that children benefit from being exposed to them within reason” (p. 240).

A couple months after “the incident”, Carl spent the day with the kids at Secret Garden. Guess what? It was cold. They gather material for a fire. Magnus volunteers to light it – using a Swedish firestarter (that has sparks up to 3,ooo degrees Celsius) and a piece of denim. He lights the fire successfuly and here is how the chapter ends:

A smile crawls across Magnus’s mud-streaked face.“ You have to be careful with fire,” he tells me, in an almost professorial tone. “But you don’t have to be afraid of it.” He trows another log on the flames and then whispers, as if to himself: “I’m not afraid of anything.” (p. 255)

Yup.