Brandy Young, a second-grade teacher in Godley elementary, Texas, let parents know on Tuesday 16th August 2016 at the “Meet the Teacher” night that she would not be assigning any homework to their 6 year olds for the entire school year.
“There will be no formally assigned homework this year,” Ms. Young wrote in a note that quickly went viral on Facebook. “Rather, I ask that you spend your evenings doing things that are proven to correlate with student success. Eat dinner as a family, read together, play outside, and get your child to bed early.”
But as innovative as this may have seemed in Texas in 2016 it was the norm for Dutch and Finish school children. It’s likely that most students and even parents would agree that homework is one of the biggest downfalls to going to school. Coming home from school, the last thing children want to do is get out their books and do more work. Finland and the Netherlands have jumped on board the same wavelength as students and it’s actually having a surprising knock-on effect on their students. In 2013, a UNICEF report rated Dutch children the happiest in the world. Dutch kids are ahead of their peers in childhood wellbeing when compared with 29 of the world’s richest industrialised countries. Ireland came 10th and the United States ranked 26th, just above Lithuania, Latvia and Romania – the three poorest countries in the survey. Children from the Netherlands were in the top five in each of all the categories assessed, and topped the education measures followed closely by Finland, even without doing homework!. Irish students have the second highest amount of homework when compared to the rest of the world.
But removing homework is not the only innovation these countries have made in educating and managing the health of their children. They have recognised that schools are the ideal sites to increase the physical activity of students. Simple things like increasing the length of break times and creating exciting playgrounds to encourage activity means these countries are bucking the worldwide trend of increasing obesity levels in children. Child obesity prevention studies suggest that including regular physical exercise sessions in the school day were among the most promising strategies used in avoiding weight gain (Summerbell et al., 2005). Shifting teacher behaviour towards using physically active schooling approaches increases the physical fitness of students, with massive implications for the wellbeing of children presently and into their future (Martin & Murtagh, 2015). Aerobic exercise creates new brain cells (Nokia et al., 2016). These new cells then cluster in portions of the brain critical for thinking and recollection. These cells are basically stem cells that will adapt to the environment to which they are exposed (Moon et al., 2016). Running and exercise does not create new knowledge, but it provides the mental equivalent of a sharpened pencil and clean sheet of paper. It prepares the brain for learning so integrating more exercise into working and schooldays would seem like a sensible option.
Learning is the most important objective of schools. Introducing physical exercise to the school day can have a positive effect on many fundamentals of learning – cognitive abilities, concentration, behaviour and satisfaction. The positive effects of exercise are apparent, and even a great deal of exercise during the school day does not hamper learning results in academic subjects. Even though the effects of exercise on learning are widely recognized, very few Irish children are moving enough. Physical exercise during the school day has the greatest impact on the students that move the least. Children get about a third of their daily recommended exercise at school, but for the least active group, school exercise may represent an even larger portion. Children are becoming more unfit, less active and more sedentary. Climbing trees, walls and fences used to be standard for children, but parents, school authorities and ‘health and safety’ have curbed the natural inclination of our children. The wild child survey prepared for the Heritage Society of Ireland in 2010 showed that Irish children spend less and less time playing outside. They have become prisoners and their home is their new “exercise yard” (Carver et al., 2008). Falling off a tree used to be a lesson in picking yourself up and learning to climb better. Now fear of possible injury and litigation stops the child climbing in the first place. The obsession with children’s safety in every aspect of their lives has meant instead of letting them go outside to play, parents fill their children’s free time with organized activities and homework. Their play has become so manicured, scheduled and planned. It’s clean and bleached, timed and measured…… Maybe its time for us to just “Go Dutch”
Carver A, Timperio A & Crawford D. (2008). Playing it safe: the influence of neighbourhood safety on children’s physical activity. A review. Health Place 14, 217-227.
Martin R & Murtagh EM. (2015). An intervention to improve the physical activity levels of children: design and rationale of the ‘Active Classrooms’ cluster randomised controlled trial. Contemp Clin Trials 41, 180-191.
Moon HY, Becke A, Berron D, Becker B, Sah N, Benoni G, Janke E, Lubejko ST, Greig NH, Mattison JA, Duzel E & van Praag H. (2016). Running-Induced Systemic Cathepsin B Secretion Is Associated with Memory Function. Cell Metab 24, 332-340.
Nokia MS, Lensu S, Ahtiainen JP, Johansson PP, Koch LG, Britton SL & Kainulainen H. (2016). Physical exercise increases adult hippocampal neurogenesis in male rats provided it is aerobic and sustained. J Physiol 594, 1855-1873.
Summerbell CD, Waters E, Edmunds LD, Kelly S, Brown T & Campbell KJ. (2005). Interventions for preventing obesity in children. Cochrane Database Syst Rev, Cd001871.