January 22, 2009

Educating kids vs. "letting them play on monkey bars"

At the confirmation hearing for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan Jan. 14, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) raised the issue of the importance of exercise and play for kids at school.

Harkin, addressing Duncan, quoted a principal at an elementary school with no playground, who said, "We're in the business of educating kids, not letting them play on monkey bars."

Harkin continued, "Somehow, somehow we need your leadership to start prodding schools to build in physical exercise every single day for these kids."

Duncan responded, "I worry a lot about the sedentary nature of so many of our young people today. As you said, not just during the school day, but after school. And the more we can, from the early stages, build habits – and, again, the kids love this. This is fun. They like to eat healthy. They like to get out and run around and play. ... And, I would argue, frankly, that at the end of the day, this is going to help us a lot academically. This doesn't take away from our core mission. This is central to that core mission."

You can watch the video of the hearing here. The transcript below (which includes the quotes above) runs from 1:07:20 to 1:13:25 on the video.

Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa): I have two other areas ... one of the results of No Child Left Behind in Iowa and other states I've visited, and I hear it a lot, is that because of the testing requirements for reading and math, that one of the first teachers to go, because of the lack of funding, is usually the art teacher or the music teacher, and of course, the phys ed teacher. Those are the first ones to go. And, here we are, and I want to just focus on the physical education part of it.

Right now, 10 million young people are considered overweight. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, by 2010, 20 percent of children and youth will be obese. And yet, less than 10 percent of our schools are providing physical exercise every day to the kids – less than 10 percent. One out of 10. Or it's equivalent for the entire school year. Almost a quarter of all schools do not require students to take any physical education at all.

I use a quote from, actually, it was a principal I have to say. I shouldn't point out the city, but it's on the record – it was in Atlanta. The principal said in response to the fact that they had built an elementary school without a playground. And his response was, "We're in the business of educating kids, not letting them play on monkey bars." Very shortsighted. Very shortsighted.

And so again, in this timeframe - when I was a kid, not only did we have 15 minutes in the morning and 15 in the afternoon and a half hour at lunch, we did an hour a day of physical education. Not education – physical exercise - I want to get away from physical education – physical exercise. But, then when we went home in the evening, we played pickup basketball, we played sandlot baseball. We didn't have TV and things like that. We didn't have Nintendos and those kind of games. So today, when kids are less active after school and they're doing more on Nintendo games and talking together on their Facebooks and things, we don't even do anything in school for these kids.

And so, I have co-sponsored legislation – the Fit Kids Act – and I don't need to get into that, but somehow, somehow we need your leadership to start prodding schools to build in physical exercise every single day for these kids.

Now, the other part of that equation is what they eat. Now, I wear another hat as chairman of the agricultural committee, as you know, and this year is the re-authorization of the Child Nutrition Bill. We've got to get better food to our kids in school for their breakfasts and for their lunches and for their snacks. That's half of it. The other half is we've got to get them exercising too during the day.

And so I look to you. You told me your wife is a physical education teacher and an athletic director at a K-12 school, so I'm really glad you have someone close to you that will talk to you about the need for physical exercise for our kids in school. And I know by your own background too, so I know that you also keep physically fit. So would you just address yourself a little bit to this lack of physical exercise for kids, especially at elementary school.

Secretary of Education Designate Arne Duncan: Sure, and my wife will absolutely keep me on the straight and narrow on this one. It's a huge issue you bring up, and there aren't easy answers. The more we instill in our children early in life these habits that will last them a lifetime, the better they're going to do.

And so we've tried to do what we can to expand those opportunities before school, during the school day, after school – we've had great non-profit partners who've helped us through that in Chicago and running programs. We had a group of our high school students actually run the Chicago marathon. And when students are exposed to those kinds of opportunities, it's going to change them for the rest of their life. And so we have to find ways to do this.

I will just say, personally, I was lucky to go to school where I had P.E. four days a week and recess and I was one of those young boys who would have had a very hard time sitting through a full day of school and it would have been tougher on my teachers. And so, again, from a personal standpoint, I know how critically important it is to have those breaks and the chance to get up and run around a little bit.

But again, I worry a lot about the sedentary nature of so many of our young people today. As you said, not just during the school day, but after school. And the more we can, from the early stages, build habits – and, again, the kids love this. This is fun. They like to eat healthy. They like to get out and run around and play. None of the stuff we've done has been mandated. Kids are looking for these kinds of opportunities.

So, you be creative when you think about the use of their time. You think about great non-profit partners who can come in and provide these kinds of opportunities. And, I would argue, frankly, that at the end of the day, this is going to help us a lot academically. This doesn't take away from our core mission. This is central to that core mission. And so, I want to find ways to be creative and think it through and see if we can expand significantly over time the number of young people with these kinds of opportunities that will shape them until the day they die.

Harkin: As I've said many times to Secretary Spellings both in open meetings and in meetings in my office, No Child Left Behind ought to mean that we're not leaving them behind in their health either. And that out to be just part and parcel, that we build that into the structure to meet certain goals. I mean, if we're going to meet certain goals in testing on reading and math, why shouldn't we have certain goals in terms of their body mass index, their exercise, their heart rates, their obesity index – all those kinds of things that we can build in? That ought to be part of it, I would think.

Duncan: Again, this has been so hugely important to me and my wife and to our family and I fully intend to look at this seriously.

Harkin: Thank you very much Mr. Duncan.

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