Back to school in the U.S. means back to football season.  I’m writing this in a college town on a Saturday when 87,000 people have arrived for the weekend highlighted by today’s game.  Today’s newspaper has stories of Friday night’s high school games, and a list of scores from 198 games played across the state.  High school football is an enormous enterprise, with attendance at games higher than college and professional games combined (National Federation of State High School Associations  Since college games are mostly on Saturdays (but with increasing numbers of weekday games), and high school games are predominantly on Fridays, games played by middle and junior high teams are on Wednesdays and Thursdays. I have been paying some attention to these schedules due to my interest in sleep on school nights, and have learned that while many games begin in late afternoon, many of them begin as late as 7:30 and 8:00pm.  What this means is that for a large number of children, not only the ones playing, but also for the many more attending, they will not even get home until 10:00 or 11:00 pm. Allowing time for travel back home, showering, eating, and so forth, it is obvious that insufficient time is available for sleep since school start times are very early.  When did sports creep so insidiously into school nights?  Not too many years ago, children’s sports were played pretty exclusively after school, and on weekends.  And not to place the blame solely on football, I have seen soccer fields full of preschool to high school age children every night of the week until 8:00pm or later. Vigorous exercise within an hour or two of bedtime ramps up metabolism and is counterproductive to quality sleep, when metabolism slows down.  Further, the emotional arousal of sports (for players and spectators) makes it difficult to wind down quickly, and for the players, aches and pains diminish the ability to go to sleep. To my knowledge, there have been no empirical studies on the relations between school night sports and attention/performance the next day in school.  But we have mountains of data showing that even an hour less sleep than needed has deleterious effects on attention, memory, and emotion regulation. I realize that my argument that children should not be on the athletic fields late on school nights will not be welcome to many. After all, should we not celebrate exercise benefits and the many other positive aspects of athletics whenever they can be arranged?  This is a question parents and school administrators need to consider.  We bemoan the academic shortcomings of schools and students, but are we handicapping many students’ optimal academic performance at the same time? I don’t think it is a coincidence that as children’s sleep hours have declined over the years, so have academic achievement scores.  Just as we learned years ago that hungry children do not learn well and did something about it through subsidized lunch and breakfast programs, we must realize that sleepy children are not well prepared to learn and ask ourselves what can we do about it.

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