Overwhelming research shows health and emotional benefits to recess, exercise, and free outdoor play.

In this webinar, Dr. Pooja Tandon of Seattle Children’s and the University of Washington, Bookie Gates, Servant Leader, Baseball Beyond Borders/Gates Ventures Group, Seattle Public Schools parent Linnea Westerlind, author of Discovering Seattle Parks: A Local’s Guide, and KUOW Education Reporter Ann Dornfeld discuss the mental health benefits of recess and PE programs in schools, outline what we need now to support school districts in Washington state to incorporate exercise programs into curriculum during this period of distance or hybrid learning, and answer your questions.

Moderated by League of Education Voters Communications Director Arik Korman.

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Overwhelming research shows that there are health and emotional benefits to recess, exercise, and free outdoor play.

Dr. Pooja Tandon of Seattle Children’s and the University of Washington, Servant Leader Bookie Gates of Baseball Beyond Borders/Gates Ventures Group, Seattle Public Schools parent and author of Discovering Seattle Parks: A Local’s Guide Linnea Westerlind, and KUOW Education Reporter Ann Dornfeld came together to discuss what this research means in the time of COVID-19.

The speakers addressed the physical, cognitive, and mental health benefits from recess and PE programs in schools. Dr. Pooja Tandon found it especially important in combatting anxiety and depression felt by students.

“When children have the opportunity to move their bodies, whether it’s physiologic from their blood flow to their brain, and the opportunities to interact with other children, there are both social and emotional benefits,” said Dr. Tandon.

In the context of COVID-19, Dr. Tandon discussed the benefits of outdoor play and activity on supporting the immune system and combatting obesity, which would support a student’s ability to recover if affected by the virus.

Dr. Tandon also believed that active and outdoor play is a fundamental need and right of every child and that schools offer a space where that opportunity can be given equitably to every child.

Bookie Gates agreed, emphasizing the responsibility for us to create spaces for students that allow a landscape for physical activity and equity.

Ann Dornfeld, who drew upon her research as an education reporter, strengthened this point by addressing the lack of access in schools with students of color and/or low-income students as opposed to white and/or wealthier schools.

“Schools that have the highest populations of students of color and lower-income students tend to offer the least recess,” said Dornfeld.

Some schools with predominantly students of color and lower-income students allowed teachers to choose whether or not students could get a fifteen-minute recess, if any at all, which is striking as opposed to white schools that get nearly an hour or so of recess time. This is likely due to access, which Dornfeld explained through analyzing how wealthier and/or whiter schools had more resources that they could use to create safe play spaces, whereas for communities of color or low-income schools often lack that capacity.

For all students, Dr. Tandon says the goal is to get kids at least sixty minutes of physical activity a day. Linnea Westerlind, however, stated that only 19% of students are meeting this sixty-minute goal. That statistic, she said, was before the pandemic. Likely, this statistic is much lower now. This emphasizes the important questions of what we can do to improve students’ physical activity and how this pandemic may affect students beyond their education.

Westerlind has three children in Seattle Public Schools and she is concerned about how children like her own are going to recover from this pandemic. Although much is uncertain about schools in the fall with reopening, what we do know, she says, is that kids have experienced trauma during this pandemic and action must be made to help them.

“We just can’t expect kids in the fall to be in front of a laptop for hours and have good, healthy, happy, and successful academic outcomes,” said Westerlind. “We need to look at things differently if we are going to have kids recover.”

Looking at physical education and active play for students includes bringing in community partners for assistance, such as Bookie Gates and organizations such as Baseball Beyond Borders or the YMCA.

“What I’m hoping school districts will embrace is that they don’t have to do this alone,” said Gates. “I think they will now more than ever be required to be interdependent with community-based organizations to help bring the right solutions to address the physical activity disengagement within their own communities.”

This perspective shift is crucial as many of the speakers spoke on the importance of people perceiving access to physical activity and going outdoors the same way they perceive other aspects of upkeeping society during COVID-19 such as with technology and businesses.

As students are learning remotely, schools are shifting perspective to think critically about new ways to help students learn. Westerlind stated that many schools focused on giving a laptop and internet access to every kid, but she wanted that same shift and critical action in supporting access of useful tools for student wellbeing in quarantine.

“What if we also made sure every kid had a jump rope or a soccer ball,” asked Westerlind.

Furthermore, as COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the country, restaurants, bars, and shops have been adapting to the virus and finding new ways to continue operating for the community.  Dr. Tandon and Dornfeld believe this same energy should be put into creating safe and accessible spaces for students to play for their overall wellbeing during this pandemic.

The speakers all emphasized that incorporating exercise during this pandemic in the era of distance learning is going to take a lot of creativity. It is also going to need multiple levels of work from various stakeholders during this pandemic, from schools all the way to families themselves.


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