“In the past, it was assumed that children were naturally active on their own, but sadly, this is no longer the case.” – Myriam Benoit, BPHE.
Members of the Laurentian University Nutrition, physical activity, and Community Health (LUNCH) Research Group regularly engage in discussions related to the peripheral impacts that administrative change has on children’s health. Specifically, during educational reform, a key component to consider is the need for meaningful physical and health education; and not just in the gymnasium. One important example is school schedules. Schools have moved away from traditional schedules, which incorporated two recesses separated by a single lunch period. Today, many schools have adopted alternative schedules, the most prevalent of which is the “Balanced School Day,” which has two 40-minute nutrition/activity breaks, separated by three 100-minute teaching blocks. While modern schedules have their benefits, assessment prior to implementation seldom considers how the changes will impact children’s physical activity levels.
Most recently, implementation of the Early Learning Kindergarten (ELK) program has begun across Ontario. In this article, we discuss the impact of the ELK program on physical activity in Kindergarten-aged children and recommend ways to safeguard this important aspect of health and well-being.
The new ELK program has been developed on the premise that Kindergarten lays the foundation for future school experiences. According to former Ontario Minister of Education, Leona Dombrowsky,
“Full-day learning is part of our overall plan to help more children get a strong start in school, so they can go on to have successful, rewarding lives. By giving them more opportunities at a young age, we’re giving our children a brighter future.”
Research has consistently shown that early success predicts long-term success and adjustment outcomes. We would like to extend this argument to include healthy lifestyles. Children who enjoy and participate in activities in kindergarten are likely to build upon this success in later years. We would also like to highlight that suitable physical activity can lay the foundation for academic success. Engagement in physical activity throughout the school day has been shown to improve student achievement and readiness to learn in addition to bettering classroom behaviour.
The ELK program will be fully implemented across Ontario in the 2014-15 school year. Several key changes have occurred with the implementation of this program, which have potentially positive and negative consequences with respect to student physical activity.
First, while Kindergarten class size will increase to a maximum of 30 students, they will be team-taught with both an Ontario Certified Teacher (OCT) and an Early Childhood Educator (ECE). We see this as being highly beneficial to maximizing individual needs, including health behaviour instruction. Second, children as young as three are now enrolled in school for the full day, and for the entire school week. This is a noteworthy change from previous generations that should facilitate children’s accommodation to the school setting and provide significant opportunity for developing healthy behaviours in the early years. Schools now have the opportunity to engage a large audience in active play and education from a very young age. Third, the curriculum has moved to an inquiry- and play-based approach. Students are given a leading role in their own learning, in an environment that is supportive of their self-regulation and development. We strongly support this type of learning and speculate that it will involve less desk-time and therefore enhance physical activity levels in the classroom.
In addition, some schools are also implementing a 60-minute Outdoor Exploration (OE) block to use the outdoors as an extension of the classroom as the Ontario Curriculum suggests. We see this as an amazing opportunity for students to learn in a different environment, and also see potential for this time to be used as an opportunity for students to achieve an increased level of physical activity during the day.
However, we also note an important negative consequence of this schedule-change – specifically, the coinciding change in recess times. Before implementation of the 60-minute OE block, Kindergarten children went outdoors for free play during recess, which occurred twice a day in schools using the Balanced School Day schedule. However, with the implementation of the OE block, Kindergarten students remain in the school during these two blocks of time, extending their nutrition breaks. This gives the children more time to eat their lunches, addressing a concern that many parents have (i.e. that their children do not have enough time to eat). Research in our centre, however, has shown that this causes an overall decrease in the total amount of physical activity that the children engage in. From a time perspective, this seems surprising since 60 minutes outside is more time than the combined time for two recesses (40 minutes). However, there are two reasons why this does not result in increased activity. First, the instructional nature of this time may alter the degree of physical activity that the children engage in. Second, we know that during free time, children are most active in the first ten minutes. Therefore, frequent shorter breaks achieve more physical activity among students than fewer, longer breaks, as seen with this modified schedule.
Another significant factor is that individual school boards, rather than the Ministry of Education, decide how much time is allocated to Health and Physical Education instruction. Currently, Kindergarten children are excluded from the Daily Physical Activity Program mandated for other grades in Ontario. Therefore, the allocated time varies from school to school.
So how can schools adopt the ELK program while still creating a school environment that supports physical activity for our youngest learners?
We first need to consider the recommendations from the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology for children’s physical activity. In this document, young children between the ages of one and four are suggested to achieve a minimum of 180 minutes of physical activity at any level throughout the day, while children aged five to 11 should achieve at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. Kindergarten students range from 3-5 years of age and therefore cross over into both of these categories. In this scenario, the benchmark more commonly used is that for the older children, i.e., 60 minutes of moderate-tovigorous physical activity each day. Additional physical activity above these recommendations produces even greater health benefits for children.
Given that Active Healthy Kids Canada has rated Canadian children with a failing grade for physical activity levels for the last nine years, and less than half of all school-aged children are achieving daily activity recommendations, it’s important for schools to build physical activity into the curriculum right from the beginning. When evaluating physical activity in the classroom, there are three target areas.
• First, recess time is important for children to have unstructured play. Play allows children to explore and interact socially with other students and learn from these experiences. As such, we recommend that all school children should enjoy two scheduled recess breaks.
• Second, we strongly support the adoption of the 60-minute OE block; however, we would urge instructors to ensure that physical activity is included as a component of this time. We note that resources, such as the Ontario Physical & Health Education Association, are readily available for schools to use and provide step-by-step instructions for a variety of games and activities for this age group.
Third, Physical Education (gym) classes are another important component of the elementary school curriculum, and we stress the importance of a structured program, delivered daily, for Kindergarten children. While the Ministry of Education has mandated 20 minutes of Daily Physical Activity (DPA) for grades 1 to 8 during classroom time, no recommendations have been made regarding DPA for Kindergarten classes, and the number of Physical Education classes expected per week is not explicitly stated.
We strongly recommend that these important elements be added to the Ministry of Education’s agenda. Likewise, teachers must ensure that a structured approach to physical activity is taken to maximize the benefits for children during this scheduled time. Schools need to have adequate infrastructure to support daily physical education and every school should have at least one Physical Education Specialist. To date, the many capabilities of these specialists are largely under-utilized and overlooked and we would urge all schools to examine their capacity in this area.
We are very excited about the direction the Ontario Ministry of Education has taken in developing this forward-thinking curriculum for the Kindergarten cohort. However, currently lacking are specific development plans to address best practice for physical activity during the school day. We believe the recommendations put forward in this article will promote future success.
Photo: McIninch (iStock)
First published in Education Canada, June 2014
EN BREF – L’activité physique est une importante partie d’une vie saine. L’intégration d’un mode de vie actif à un jeune âge jette les bases de la pratique d’activités plus tard dans la vie. Dans cet article, nous suggérons aux gestionnaires et éducateurs d’écoles primaires des « pratiques exemplaires » à mettre en œuvre pour que soient respectées les lignes directrices recommandées en matière d’activité physique. Nous proposons également l’élaboration de politiques en fonction de ces lignes directrices pour les élèves du nouveau programme d’apprentissage de la maternelle et du jardin d’enfants en Ontario.
 Leona Dombrowsky, Ontario Minister of Education, in The Full-day Early Learning Kindergarten Program (2010-11), 5. www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/curriculum/elementary/kindergarten_english_june3.pdf
 Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP), Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines. www.csep.ca/english/view.asp?x=804#
 Active Healthy Kids Canada, Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth (2013). www.activehealthykids.ca/ReportCard/ReportCardOverview.aspx