My guiding mantra in life is that the brain and the body are integrally connected along a two way street. A stress on one system helps to strengthen the other and vice versa. I truly believe, and now with solid scientific backing, that physical activity bolsters performance in the classroom and in life in general. Despite the recent deluge of literature linking exercise with improved academic performance, physical education is often perceived as a liability to underfunded school systems pressured to teach to achievement tests. However, it seems that the destructive hypocrisy of this trend is finally becoming apparent to innovative school administrators…
A recent article in the NY Times reported on how some elementary schools are now incorporating academic lessons into physical education class. The intention is to maximize academic instruction while also promoting physical activity, which enhances academic achievement (not to mention healthy weight maintenance, lowered risk of depression, cardiovascular benefits, productivity and self confidence, and so forth). So it makes total sense to kill two birds with one stone—teach to the tests without sacrificing physical activity. But as I thought more and started to weight the pros and cons, I realized that with all initiatives, benefits and drawbacks exist in a tenuous balance. The ingredients are pure, but it is the amount of each that will determine whether or not we have formulated a recipe for success.
This effort to combine academic lessons with physical activity should be applauded for the mere fact that it recognizes that exercise is working synergistically to enhance academic aptitude. The idea of incorporating math and health science directly into gym class is creative and engaging. Students who perhaps prefer the classroom to the kickball field my find a newfound appreciation for sports. Conversely, those students who wait all week for gym class may find academics more rewarding when encouraged to explore the link between sports and academics, the brain and the body, the student and the athlete, or however you want to frame it. Moreover, the concept of healthy living is something that deserves self-exploration and experimentation; teaching these concepts in a classroom is boring and dull because they lack relevance and context. Instruction in mathematics, nutritional sciences, and health behaviors fit seamlessly into the idea of the “quantified self.” Schools should provide pedometers, credit towards smart phone apps, log books, and basic equipment to encourage real-life experimentation that could provide useful scientific information for students and researchers alike. In time, with proof of efficacy and engagement, schools could provide standing desks, performance centers for athletes and students alike, healthier food choices…the room for improvement is without walls.
However, there is always the risk that the scale tips too far in one direction and the ingredients fall out of balance and the flavor sours. Currently, the initiative is described as physical education with and infusion of academics. If the scales reverse and the program turns into health sciences with a tinge of physical activity, this could undermine the well-meaning intentions. That is to say, the educational objectives for academic purposes should NOT substitute for and overshadow the purpose of gym class itself—to be active! Students should not be given the option to do a report on proper running technique instead of actually running, to count while other jump, or to watch and analyze sports instead of playing them. While these ideas are certainly useful add-ons to promote physical activity and simultaneously reinforce concepts from the classroom, they should remain exactly so. It would be a shame to see fun and joy of gym class crushed by academic encroachment.
So what is the perfect mix? The reality is that each school system, each school, each teacher, and each student is different and is operating with constraints. So there is no cookie cutter, one-fits-all program that can strike the perfect balance for all. Nor should there be. As much as this idea provides a potential solution to misaligned incentives, it also represents the demise of play for the sake of play. Unstructured play cultivates creativity, social skills, and innovation—skills that lesson plans cannot instill.
To those who are testing this brain-body fusion, your efforts are exciting and imperative. As the recipe evolves, encourage others—students, teachers, and parents alike—to add unique ingredients and spice it up. Often, as with life itself, when you are scrambling to maintain a precarious balance, you will savor success.