The False Promise of Back-to-School Commercials

Forget those sunlit scenes of happy children playing outdoors. Too many students are deprived of outdoor time -- and their minds and bodies both pay the price.

A still frame from recent JCPenney commercial

As the summer comes to a close, television stations are inundated with back-to-school commercials that show beaming children eager to run through the doors of beautiful brick school buildings and out into the lush green fields and playgrounds that surround them. But this imagery couldn't be further from the truth of what real school life is like for millions of kids across the country.

The reality is that most public schools today do not create warm and inspiring environments that are conducive to learning. In fact, they do the opposite.

Scores of studies on educational psychology, learning styles, and productivity have found that children and adults alike learn best when they are physically active, well nourished, and take breaks throughout the day. And savvy organizations are finally starting to pay attention, modeling enviable companies like Google, Evernote, and Facebook.

Surely the idea that people need healthy conditions to perform optimally also applies to school performance. Yet, even as today's office culture leverages this new research, our nation's schools are stuck in the last century, ignoring the science and instead using narrow and restrictive practices to try and increase student performance.

For example, neuroscientists have long recommended "brain breaks" every 90 minutes in order to increase productivity. The most innovative workplaces have taken notice, offering everything from office yoga to flexible work hours and napping mats. At these companies, employee health and wellness has become just as important for the bottom line as cutting costs and balancing budgets.

While parents are recharging through lunchtime workouts in office gyms, their children are tethered to desks, stuck in classrooms all day with no hope of movement in sight. Clearly something's wrong with this picture. Can you imagine being forced to sit still and pay attention to someone droning on in the front of the room for six to seven hours a day with no breaks? That's what each school day looks like for the approximately 30 percent of school-aged children in the U.S. who are denied recess.

According to the National Association of Sports and Physical Health:

Recess provides children with free unstructured time to engage in physical activity that helps them develop healthy bodies and enjoyment of movement. It also provides children the opportunity to practice life skills such as cooperation, taking turns, following rules, sharing, communication, negotiation, problem solving, and conflict resolution.

One of the arguments used to explain the decrease in recess and physical education across the country is lack of time in the school day. Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 more focus has been placed on test results and less on the well-being of students. Schools have adopted the concept of "drill and repeat" instead of recognizing that free time and recharging can enhance cognition and memory.

The assumption is that more time focused on this form of test prep will help performance, even though the research suggests that the opposite is true. Today's indoor children are less physically fit, less able to concentrate, and less able to relate to others than any previous generation. The effects can be clearly seen in the rise of childhood obesity, poor test scores, and negative classroom behavior.

With this in mind, my colleagues at the National Wildlife Federation issued a report titled Back to School: Back Outside. The report highlights the fact that kids today are under far more pressure than their parents were decades before them, yet they have less access to simple modes of decompression and stress relief, like riding their bikes to school or playing a game of Red Rover at recess. They don't have the luxury to roam free in the schoolyard like the "free-range" kids of the 80s, so parents are left to bridge the gap. As our report notes:

Parents can play a particularly important role in helping their children to have more productive school time by allocating home time for outdoor activities in natural settings and by being strong advocates for schools to offer more safe outdoor time and experiences to their children.

While this advice is useful for some, the reality is that many families, particularly those who are low-income, have real barriers to the outdoors and are unable to fill the void being left by schools. And they shouldn't have to. It is up to us, as a whole society, to stop thrusting our 21st century kids into sterile, rigid, and overly structured learning environments--spaces we would never except in our own offices today, and shouldn't tolerate in our schools.

As we pack up the beach gear in favor of backpacks, now is a perfect opportunity to examine exactly what students are heading back in to. For most, it's not a beautiful brick building set atop a grassy hill, or a playground filled with games and laughter.