As someone who loathed PE and would happily have spent her childhood in the school library, I feel a bit embarrassed to be lobbying for more dodge ball. But anyone who's observed the behavior of children who have been cooped up inside all day versus those who have been running and jumping outside for an hour doesn't need a study to know which ones are better equipped to learn.
For those who remain in doubt, two new studies indicate that what many schools now regard as expendable "extras"—gym class, music, art—may actually help children do better in academics like math and reading. Since the federal No Child Left Behind Act became law in 2002, school districts across the country have jettisoned what they consider expendable subjects in order to drill students on the basics. Now, scientific evidence is starting to accumulate that turning schools into kiddie gulags where tiny tots spend the day hunched over their desks in sad imitation of their parents' cubiclebound days is actually counterproductive.
Girls who take more PE, it turns out, do better on reading and math tests. That's the news from researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They looked at data on children across the country who entered kindergarten in 1998 and followed the children through fifth grade. Researchers found that girls who had more PE—70 to 300 minutes per week compared with no more than 35 minutes a week—showed small but significant improvements in math and reading. (They reported their results in the April American Journal of Public Health.) Boys didn't benefit from extra PE, interestingly enough. That may be because girls are generally less fit than boys or because the amount of extra PE in many cases was relatively small. An earlier German study in which some children took 60 minutes of PE each day, compared with the control group's 40 minutes a week, found that daily exercise improved boys' and girls' academic scores.
The neuroscientists are also weighing in with evidence that cognitive development—as well as academic performance—benefits from studying the arts. Three years ago, the Dana Foundation asked some of the biggest brains in brain research to study whether practicing the arts makes for better thinking. Their first report, a 100-plus-page tome called Learning, Arts and the Brain, didn't nail down whether learning to play the violin, say, actually makes kids brainier or whether it's the smart, motivated children who are more likely to put effort into practicing the violin. But the group's research has uncovered intriguing hints at how arts may affect developing brains:
- Children who study music intensively (for 20 or more hours a week) were significantly better at geometry than children who studied theater or writing.
- The more musical training children had, the better they did at reading.
- The sustained focus needed to become good at a performing art such as music or ballet trains attention in a way that leads to improved cognition.
"Maybe children who are particularly good at geometry are also good at music," says Elizabeth Spelke, a Harvard neuropsychologist who studied the connection as part of the Dana project. "But the causality could go the other way." In other words, while no one yet knows if practicing an art will also make your kid a junior Euclid, the effect is strong enough that they're going to keep looking.
Meantime, physical activity and art are two of life's great joys. "Music is good and fun and engaging," says Brian Wandell, the Stanford psychologist who found that the more musical training children had in the first year of a three-year study, the more their reading fluency improved. Who these days couldn't use a little more fun? Maybe it's time we parents pick up the violin, too. Or make use of these bright spring evenings to chase a soccer ball with the kids.