The bell rings and they can’t wait. After a long day in the classroom, kids of all ages race to open fields on the other side of the school parking lot. That’s the goal, anyway. But for many kids, daily opportunities for fitness are a far cry from reality.
Experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say school-age children should be physically active at least one hour a day. Most 9- to 13-year-olds do get their daily dose of physical activity, with more than three-quarters exercising throughout the week. But that percentage significantly declines as children grow older. In 2013, less than a third of high school students met the one-hour mark or attended physical education classes during an average school week. As children become more sedentary, their risk grows for developing chronic health problems down the road. The problem is especially acute for children from low-income families.
How do we make sure every young person — no matter where they live or their family’s income — has the opportunity to be active and healthy every day? We believe schools are an important part of the answer. Simply put: children go to school five days a week, so schools are in a unique position to help kids exercise regularly. Plus, physical activity helps kids concentrate on classroom tasks and improve their standardized test scores. That means schools have a vested interest in keeping kids active so they’ll do better academically.
Unfortunately, many school districts lack the resources to offer robust physical education programs. There are lots of reasons schools have had to cut back on physical education classes and recess: not enough funding, few safe spaces to play, the need for more classroom time to make sure every child is given educational opportunity. The number of things schools have to accomplish every day is enormous.
And that’s where the U.S. Soccer Foundation comes in.
Recently leaders from our organization met with staff at the Department of Education to discuss our partnerships with schools across the country, especially in underserved communities. We offer proven youth development programs, build fields where children can play safely, and supply much-needed athletic equipment. Afterschool programs like ours not only give students a physical outlet, they also increase the effort kids put into school, keep them from skipping class, and boost their academic confidence.
An independent evaluation of our Soccer for Success afterschool program found that 89 percent of children who started the program overweight or obese left it with improved or maintained aerobic capacity. When it came to school, 89 percent of students said they tried harder as a result of the program, and 85 percent said they tried harder to avoid violence and fighting.
We love talking to teachers about how our programs turn their students around. To enhance our children’s academic performance and help them feel more engaged in the classroom, we as a community have to do more to bring physical activity and academia together. We look forward to hearing from schools and educators about your vision for ensuring that every young person has the chance to live a full and healthy life.
Wylie Chen is Vice President of Programs and Grants at the U.S. Soccer Foundation.