Chapel Hill: Opinion

Erin Sullivan: Dropping PA shortchanges middle-school students

I am the parent of a student at Culbreth Middle School. Overall, Culbreth is a wonderful school with high-quality teachers and excellent extra curricular programs.

We were surprised, however, by the unexpected announcement last week by school administration that the students’ short “Physical Activity” or PA period would be eliminated from the schedule.

Traditionally PA falls either immediately before or immediately following lunch and lasts approximately 20 minutes. It is the only period of unstructured time or recess allowed to today’s middle-school students. Per the announcement, PA has been replaced with a rotating series of structured, supervised educational activities.

The elimination of any free, unstructured time from the middle-school schedule seems unnecessarily punitive and antithetical to the recommendation that children should be granted more opportunity for choice and responsibility as they age, rather than less.

Currently students at Culbreth have fewer opportunities for unstructured time and free choice than many of them did in elementary school. And there is not even any “ramp” in place that would prepare these students for the schedule structure and free time that they will encounter as part of the high school day.

In addition, I submit the following points for consideration:

• Numerous well-qualified studies in recent years have demonstrated the connection between recess, unstructured time, and free-form outdoor activity with increased achievement. Taking away these spaces in the day has correlated with reduced achievement for students. If the professed goal of this change in schedule is to address the achievement gap, this policy change seems short sighted.

• Obesity and diabetes – children in the U.S. already have too little activity in their day and removal of PA from the schedule seems in direct conflict with Culbreth’s stated policy to lead as a “Healthy School.”

• Social interaction – the current middle-school generation has increasingly few opportunities for face-to-face, unstructured social interaction with peers. Recent studies of college-age students demonstrate that most participants, when put in positions where they have to conduct a simple face-to-face conversation, are often unable to do so. Without unstructured social time at school, students will continue to narrow their interaction skills to those that can be conducted via keyboard and via text message.

• Opportunity for Positive Risk – a recent article in the Washington Post highlighted the biological need for middle school students to have the opportunity to take risks. Their brains are optimized at this age to seek out risks. Without the opportunity to take positive risks or risks within a loosely structured framework (such as a middle school free period or lunch or another loosely structured safe space like PA) they will find other more dangerous outlets.

Our middle-school students need more opportunity for free interaction at school rather than less. Culbreth is not preparing middle school students for success in high school by limiting their autonomy and infantilizing them. Culbreth is not supporting long term positive physical and social outcomes by changing current policy to impose more restrictions and more structure on students.

Erin Sullivan lives in Chapel Hill.