Hyperactive Kids and Playtime - What's the Connection?

Focus in the classroom may be directly tied to physical activity levels ...

Posted Mar 13, 2017

When my daughter was diagnosed with ADHD by second grade, my baby boomer brain had me wondering. Yes – she was often “off-task” and easily bored trying to sit still at a desk all day long. But where were all the kids like her when I was growing up? I do recall several boys (usually not girls) who were sent to the principal’s office for acting out in class or on the playground. But those instances were pretty rare, and no one labeled their behaviors as anything but naughtiness, negative attention-getting, bad manners, or lack of parental guidance.

This made me want to look up how far back historically the term “ADHD” (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) went.  It was evidently first used in 1902, when British pediatrician Sir George Still recognized “an abnormal defect of moral control in children.” He found that while these children possessed average and above IQs, they simply lacked the ability to control their behavior the way a typical child would. But MORAL control? ABNORMAL defect? Just as I wrote about in my post Celebrating Your Child's ADHD Gifts, a number of hyperactive children become successful adults, learning to channel their energy into meaningful endeavors.

To me, "Restless Leg Syndrome" made more sense than this doctor's grim assessment of hyper kids. After all, it wasn’t until the 1980s that I first heard the ADHD acronym used in parenting articles and books, saw kids lined up at school nurses’ offices for their daily doses of Ritalin, or learned of special pull-out programs to help kids like this focus. So what had changed? And was there a way kids like these – and even other kids with ants in their pants who had focusing issues in school -- might be helped without drugs, programs or labels?

I am not the first to look back and recognize how differently kids spend their day now as opposed to the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, but here is a snapshot: Many of us either walked or biked to school. Like Pavlov’s dogs salivating at the bell that told them food was on the way, recess time was like being liberated from a prison -- just to kick a ball, throw down rocks on a hopscotch form we had crudely drawn with chalk on the playground asphalt, or maneuver a double-flip jump rope session. We were smiling, posturing, and animated, sometimes declared new best friends, and returned to class sweaty, sated, and almost grateful to face the next round of academic subjects as the teacher tried to settle us down.  Physical activity was as much a part of our day as academics, and despite the advent of boxed macaroni and cheese, Betty Crocker cakes and TV dinners, few of us were overweight.

As public education changed with each president’s campaign promises and edicts over how superior American children should be academically, instructional minutes increased and recess time lessened. School funding became more and more dependent on test scores. Video games (and then home computers) found kids sitting for hours in front of a screen when once they had to be held back from playing outside.

And the ADHD diagnosis became more and more prevalent.  

A coincidence? Some of us (and since I am not a therapist or diagnostician, I can say this) don’t think so. Just as kids’ intelligence falls along a spectrum, their attention spans can vary as well. While a teacher begins earnestly tell a story from history in front of the class, one child may be riveted, another may be watching a bird flit from branch to branch outside a window, and another (like my daughter), might be grabbing a book from a nearby shelf or humming to herself to stave off boredom. So in an effort to see how some schools are trying to change things up to help kids focus, I came up with some examples – with one in the U.S. and the source of the change coming from Europe – to show how it may be possible for physical activity to make a huge difference in ALL children’s attention spans.

Kindergarteners and first graders at Eagle Mountain Elementary School in Fort Worth, Texas, run, squeal, swing, and slide. But this isn’t news. As NPR’s Christopher Connelly writes in his piece Turns Out Monkey Bars and Kickball Might be Good for the Brain, kids at this school get "more opportunities to role-play than many of their peers, because recess happens a lot here — four times a day, 15 minutes a pop.” Doesn’t sound like much to us on the outside, but then again, I had no idea that these 4 little quarter-hour free time slots added up to much more play time than the majority of U.S. schools, who now use that time for tests and test prep. According to the Center of Public Education, the average number of free play minutes in our schools a paltry 30.2 minutes per day. 

So what did this doubling of recess time do for the students at Eagle Mountain? “Teachers at Eagle Mountain say they've seen a huge transformation in their students. They say kids are less distracted, they make more eye contact, and they tattle less. And then there are the pencils. ‘You know why I was sharpening them? Because they were grinding on them, they were breaking them, they were chewing on them. They're not doing that now. They're actually using their pencils for the way that they were designed — to write things!’" says veteran teacher Cathy Wells. 

Bob Murray, an Ohio State University pediatrician, says "If you want a child to be attentive and stay on task, and also if you want them to encode the information you're giving them in their memory, you've got to give them regular breaks."  He went on to say that he and his colleagues wrote up a policy statement for the American Academy of Pediatrics. In it, they suggested that kids with more free time play behave better, are physically healthier and exhibit stronger social and emotional development.

Eagle Mountain’s eagerness to think outside the box came after they studied elementary education in Finland, where students and teachers take a 15-minute break after every 45 minutes of instruction. “During a typical break, students head outside to play and socialize with friends while teachers disappear to the lounge to chat over coffee,” says Timothy D. Walker, a contributing writer for The Atlantic who is also an American teacher based in Finland. He tells of the paradigm shift he experienced in his article How Finland Keeps Kids Focused Through Free Play and speaks of a student who walked up to him shortly after Walker began teaching there.

“'I think I’m going to explode! I’m not used to this schedule,'” said one fifth grader, after Walker imposed his customary (American style) instruction schedule that called for several hours of instruction before offering a break. “My students in the States had always seemed to drag their feet after about 45 minutes in the classroom. But they’d never thought of revolting like this shrimpy Finnish fifth grader, who was digging in his heels on the third day of school. At that moment, I decided to embrace the Finnish model of taking breaks. Once I incorporated these short recesses into our timetable, I no longer saw feet-dragging, zombie-like kids in my classroom. Throughout the school year, my Finnish students would—without fail—enter the classroom with a bounce in their steps after a 15-minute break. And most importantly, they were more focused during lessons.” It seems it’s not really a matter of exercising kids’ brains. Instead, it’s about exhausting their bodies in healthy ways while learning the social aspects of free play.

In the end, it’s not a matter of wishing kids could live like we did in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. It’s really more about letting kids be kids and have enough unfettered play time to muster up the attention span they need to succeed and be educated. Huge changes (not easily implemented) like doubling the amount of free play your child receives each day may mean a longer school day in order to satisfy the requirements placed on public schools for funding.

True. It’s up to us as parents to try to make up for the lack of exercise and play time our kids get by limiting their couch potato activities.  Childhood comes but once, and it’s a fleeting time in all our lives. But if pushing for any of this with your own school district means fewer kids have to take behavior-changing drugs and the rest of them do better in the classroom in the long run, it may well be worth our collective attention.