Kids shouldn’t sit at desks all day when schools reopen

States and school districts across the country are putting together plans for reopening schools when it is deemed safe, with features that allow for keeping students and teachers apart from each other as much as possible. Many of the plans call for students to stay at their desks in the same room all day, and even eat lunch there, reducing the movement they had in schools pre-pandemic.

Hanscom explains what the consequences can be if students are forced to sit at their desks for all or much of the day without opportunities for playing outdoors.

By Angela Hanscom

“It took a pandemic for me to slow down.”

The professional I was talking to on the phone giggled — almost childlike in her excitement. She went on to tell me, “Before the virus hit, my family and I were incredibly busy juggling life, work and activities. For the first time in many years, we have so much time on our hands!”

She paused and then said, “I’m outside. My kids are outside. The neighbor’s kids are outside. It reminds me of the early 1980s when everyone is riding their bikes around town. The funny thing … is I don’t want to go back to the way things were. I like this slower pace.”

I have to agree. Many are repeating a similar mantra, “less is more” and “nature has been our saving grace” during this quarantine.

As we reenter schools, we need to remember this lesson: Time, space and outdoor play are essential to children’s health. In fact, they’ll need this more than ever before.

Sam Cartwright-Hatton, professor of clinical child psychology at the University of Sussex, noted in this article, “All the research indicates that children’s emotional health is suffering in the lockdown and it seems likely that this suffering will, in many cases, continue into the long term. We are urging ministers and policymakers to ensure that children are afforded substantial, and if possible enhanced, access to high-quality play opportunities as soon as possible.”

Let me repeat this phrase, “Children will need enhanced access to high-quality play opportunities when they return.” This means healthy social interaction, authentic play and a sense of security. They need a safe refuge away from the fears of the world.

But the plans for reopening schools are offering the opposite. The “new normal” will consist of children spending their entire day in their assigned seats (even lunch!), less hands-on activities, no art or library, and either no recess and physical education or physically distanced recess and PE.

When I first saw this, I thought it was a joke. Sadly, it isn’t. Parents are already screaming, “this is prison” and “I refuse to send my child there.”

I’ve talked about the problems of overly restricting children’s ability to play and move before. The results are not pretty. They lead to decreased attention, trouble regulating emotions, an increase in sensory issues and difficulty learning. Imagine going into an even stricter environment that allows for little to no social interaction, play and movement? Is this the best we can do? Is it truly “healthy?”

When thinking about ways forward, we must create solutions that focus not just on survival but also on conditions where children can truly thrive. One way to do this is to take learning outdoors whenever possible.

Evidence is mounting that being outdoors is safer when it comes to covid-19. Studies suggest outdoor activities pose a lower rise then those done indoors. Taking your classes outside where there is fresh air and plenty of space is a creative way to provide real and meaningful learning experiences to children.

Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, states, “Enjoy nature. It’s good for us, and it has very low risk of spreading the virus.”

We cannot keep children isolated and restricted from playing with others for too much longer. It is unrealistic and harmful. Just like other businesses and organizations, schools will also need to get creative to better meet the needs of children, while keeping them safe at the same time.

This is not the first time we have taken learning outdoors in the name of safety. In the early 20th century, Open Air Schools become fairly common in Europe. Desks in the courtyard, fresh air, good ventilation and exposure to the outdoors were paramount. They were originally designed to prevent and combat the widespread rise of tuberculosis that occurred in the period leading up to the Second World War. They soon became popular in other parts of the world due to their extensive health benefits for all children.

After years of implementing outdoor programming for children, I’ve come to realize there are countless benefits. Here are just four of them:

  • When children dive deep into their play experiences outside, time and again, they naturally spread out and form small groups. When we set up the environment correctly, there is no need to intervene constantly and tell children to separate. This technique helps decrease stress on children, especially those already struggling with anxiety and/or sensory issues.
  • Outdoor play is incredibly therapeutic. When children step outdoors, it is naturally calming and helps regulate and organize the senses. It also serves to challenge and advance various skills that you just cannot replicate in the classroom or therapy setting. In a time of crisis, it would be wise to take advantage of nature’s unique assets.
  • Time outside also helps to boost the immune system, something that is also becoming a priority.
  • Outdoor play is one of the most meaningful and fun ways for children to learn. I’ve witnessed everything from children creating a giant chain reaction machine in the woods (think physics on steroids!) to designing their own homes made out of bricks, sticks and hay after listening to the classic fairy tale, “Three Little Pigs.”

Last week I talked with a speech therapist over the phone. “Please tell me about your certification program for schools!” Her plea was urgent in tone, “As we reopen schools, I feel it is more important than ever that the children are doing a portion of their learning outdoors.”

She said many parents she knows will refuse to send their children back to schools if they do not create healthy learning spaces for children. “People’s eyes are opened now. They know the importance of outdoor time.”

We do not need to accept the “new normal,” which leaves little promise or hope for the youngest in our society. This is an opportunity for “new beginnings.” It is time to implement more movement, not less; more hands-on experiences, not less; and more outdoor playtime, not less.

While others may advocate for more isolation, sterilization and technology, parents can take a stand for more time outdoors. Our children’s health and safety depend on it.

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