It’s a fact some schools have been cutting physical education classes and other activities like recess and team sports in order to save money and allow more classroom time. However, removing physical activity from school kids’ days may actually have a detrimental effect on their scholastic abilities.
Carolyn Wassell, M.Ed. is the principal of the West Charleston Enrichment Academy (WCEA) where staying active is seen as an integral part of the school day. The long-time teacher and administrator feels physical activity has an incredibly positive impact on her students’ academic performance.
“Children have many academic periods at school where they must be cognitively focused,” she told DietsInReview. “Physical activity provides a break from concentrated instruction. Instead of going from one mental task to another, physical activity serves to relieve stress and actually lessen distractions. This allows students to return to academic tasks with increased focus and with the ability to do better on their assignments.”
Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh, how beautiful!’ and sitting in the shade.
― Rudyard Kipling
The act of planting a garden – working the soil, tending to the plants and reaping the bounty is a time-honored tradition that has slowly morphed from necessity to hobby. Over the last 100 years, America’s industrialization and urban expansion have eliminated the need for gardens in most households. Unfortunately, some apartment dwellers are packed so close together that growing basil in a pot on the windowsill is the closest they’ll get to a harvest.
Today we’re highlighting two programs that teach gardening skills in the United States. Though the “participants” are very different, they all receive benefits that go far beyond the eventual food a garden yields.
Last week, the National Public Radio (npr) website ran a story about several minimum security prisons that have developed their own vegetable gardens thanks in part to the Insight Garden Program. Inmates who qualify for the program are allowed to work outside where they tend to a small area of raised beds that grow everything from tomatoes to lettuce. Beth Waitkus, Director of the Insight Garden Program said she created this endeavour after the tragedies of 9/11 to, “restore her faith in humanity.”
Recently I attended a group meeting with my daughter’s third grade teacher. All the parents were encouraged to sit in our child’s designated spot. As my adult-sized body balanced precariously on the uncomfortable wooden chair beneath me, I wondered how in the world little bodies – with much less backside cushion – could stand to spend eight hours sitting on what is essentially a small plank with legs. Evidently, teachers have also struggled with this ergonomic conundrum over the years and now, many schools are adopting a new seating strategy – stability balls.
Normally used in the gym for exercises that improve core strength and posture, a new line of stability balls are now being marketed for use in the office and classroom. Available in friendly primary colors, the balls are equipped with legs to discourage kids from rolling them around the room or having ball races. Because, yeah, they’re way ahead of you on that one, you little shenaniganizers. The idea behind the use of stability balls in the classroom is based around the theory that when the body is engaged, the mind is, too.
The balls aren’t cheap, particularly when you’re outfitting an entire classroom, but teachers who have adopted the new seating arrangement say they’re pleased with the outcome. Though a few teachers had trouble with students throwing the balls or other mistreatment, most said they noticed an immediate improvement in their students’ attention spans. A few educators noticed they had trouble with kids bouncing on them for the first few days, but that quickly diminished with redirection. One form of redirection included going back to the wooden plank chair.
As school budgets continue to shrink, one area we see cut time and time again is physical education. Schools eliminate this vitally important part of a student’s schedule in exchange for more classroom time to prep for tests, reduce the burden of a full-time teacher salary, and maintenance costs for gym and equipment. It’s to the detriment of our students that they lose PE programs. In some schools they’re actually finding new ways to infuse fitness back in to the learning environment, though.
Yoga has long been celebrated for its extensive list of benefits, which include focus, energy, and overall fitness for even the youngest of practitioners. While not as common as reading or math, yoga is making an appearance in more and more schools, and it’s proving as worthwhile to students as anything they’re learning in a book.
In 2001, The Accelerated School in Los Angeles introduced a pilot program of YogaEd. Lead by Tara Guber, an expert practitioner and teacher with more than 25 years experience, the students followed a secular yoga practice that taught relaxation, stress, self-esteem, as well as posture and body awareness. Two years later, the results of the program were analyzed in a study that deemed the yoga curriculum not only worthwhile for that school, but worthy of introduction in more schools. Today, they tell us they have 900 instructors in the 35 states and Canada.
Victor High School of Victor, New York is one school that has added yoga to its physical education curriculum. For the past seven years yoga has been on the elective schedule for students and it’s always one of the first classes to fill up, according to Shelly Collins, PE Department Chair and High School Physical Educator at Victor High. She told us the course was initially only open to juniors and seniors for the first five years, but it was so well received that they are now in their second year of offering the yoga class to freshmen and sophomores, too.
“We have a strong passion to introduce and teach our students activities that they can use for their lifetime,” said Collins. The staff practiced that passion seven years ago when the school’s director of physical education, Ronald Whitcomb, challenged them to find a fitness class that was popular in the community and bring it back to their students. After meeting with local yoga studio owners, the curriculum was set and the course added.
The Victor High students attend a one-hour beginner level class each week, and many have grown in their aptitude and enjoyment of the practice enough to pursue community yoga classes outside of school. “They are confident that they will be able to understand and participate,” said Collins.
Proven benefits of yoga in schools include improved self-esteem for students, better overall physical health, better grades, lower stress, and improved problem solving capabilities. What parent wouldn’t want that for their child? What teacher wouldn’t also benefit from this in each of her students?
“Yoga is a lifetime activity that our students find enjoyable and challenging,” said Collins. “Many students comment that they are more relaxed and less stressed after having finished one of our yoga classes. The health benefits are something that the students can feel right away, and in this day and age of ‘instant gratification,’ it has immediate results with our students.”
Unlike a math teacher who can’t so easily transition to teach an English class, yoga can be taught by anyone on staff with the certification. Hundreds of teachers have gained such certifications through Lisa Flynn’s Yoga 4 Classrooms, a program piloted at an elementary school in Maine. After positive feedback and great results, thousands of teachers were inspired to add the practice to their classrooms.
It’s important to note the use of “secular” yoga mentioned in the YogaEd program, as there are continually differing opinions on the religious implications of the practice. “We explain that yoga is not religion, and appeal to school administrators that our curriculum is modeled the same as English or math with lesson plans that meet national PE standards,” Ellen Vittoria of YogaEd told us. In some schools, the word yoga isn’t even used, nor is meditation, and it’s referred to as stretch class or something else generic. Schools avoid anything that may have a religious undertone to prevent backlash from parents. Vittoria explained that all of their course materials use English translations with no mention of Sanskrit or Hindu. Whether yoga is spiritual, religious, or purely physical, the debate exists and should be treaded lightly.
As far as the costs, they can actually be fairly minimal to the school or district. At Victor High, they made an initial investment of mats and blocks and replace as needed. It’s more affordable to have a current staff member, ideally someone from the physical education department, trained and certified than it would be to hire a full-time dedicated yoga instructor. It’s also possible that community members would lead the yoga courses for a free or discounted rate as a way of giving back.
The benefits exist for the students, teachers, and schools when any kind of physical fitness is included in the curriculum. But yoga goes beyond the lessons of sportsmanship and teamwork, it teaches discipline, commitment, and the ability to listen to oneself. “I feel like students get so stressed out these days over good grades, making teams, getting into the right college—it’s high competition. Yoga could be a great outlet for them to feel calm and teach each moment as it comes,” said Kathryn Budig, a renowned yoga expert who is releasing The Big Book of Yoga this fall with Rodale.
Not only does too much homework negatively affect students’ test scores, but new research suggests that even an hour or two of homework each night gives no measurable advantages to students before they enter grades 10 through 12. Sydney University’s Richard Walker headed up the study outlined in his new book “Reforming Homework: Practices, Learning and Policies.”
According to the study, students in elementary school get limited benefits from homework, while middle schoolers get slightly more. It’s not until high school that academic performance becomes enhanced with homework. Even then, too much homework can lead to poor mental and physical health. A lack of sleep is one cause of this, with one study linking sleep deficiencies in teens to obesity. A lack of sleep can also lead to diabetes, another study found. (more…)