Stick and a Pile of Dirt

I was blessed to have parents as teachers.  I was blessed to be raised in a household where questions were encouraged and a healthy balance of work and play were exercised.  I was expected to develop a relationship with God. These were part of my upbringing. Life was not perfect by any means, but in hindsight, I was quite fortunate.

Some of my fondest memories include my mother as a patient and wise soul and a voracious, theatric reader. I could also rely on her to share a mug of hot chocolate and donuts after every hockey game. I often joke that I never went to preschool, though I had the best preschool teacher—EVER; my Mom.  Reading was a daily event and I was either read to or read nearly every evening. But I wasn’t fused to a desk all day; hardly.

I wasn’t known for sitting still. I didn’t pester other students, I just moved around…quite a bit. After a lesson or two, and especially after I became a bit “twitchy”, Mom would remark, “It’s time to get the wiggles out.” Translation? Go outside; find a stick and pile of dirt and play. Climb a tree and pretend to be a sailor; scour the beach front for sunken treasure (crabs or mussels—-one never knew what might be found under a rock or in a tide pool), do something, but get out of the house! My “X-box” was outside.

But the real benefit to my education was that she realized the importance of balancing my sitting time, (and limited attention span), with kinetic time.  Late, in elementary school and throughout junior high and high school, when I claimed I could not pay attention (and my teachers noted that I couldn’t sit still), I would say to her, “Well I have ADD.”  To which she responded. “No, you are simply a pain in the derriere (or facsimile)—you just need to get up and run it off.” She realized I needed to get up and out, stretch, run, climb, throw or pull something. And after thirty minutes or so, I was good to go…for a few more minutes …

Over the last several weeks I have either heard or read about studies linking exercise with increased brain activity and mental acuity. One recent article from the Wall Street Journal, noted the importance of “brain breaks” in the classroom as they boosted performance, especially for children with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). One such program, “…helps teachers use short bursts of activity of three to 10 minutes to accumulate thirty minutes a day. Activities include jumping in place and doing squats.”  (For me this was “Run around the house and see if you can catch the gnome.”  Or “See if you can jump up and grab that branch and scamper on up the tree,” (Not too high…).  One of the professors in the study notes “Just 20 minutes of exercise of moderate intensity improved these core abilities to allocate attention and improved scholastic performance.”

Do you ever wonder why recess is important? And do you ever consider the merits of our Normandale campus in this endeavor? Our kiddos go from one building to the next throughout the day; they walk, jump or skip around the Great Lawn to and from Chapel and P.E. in addition to recess. Unstructured play is very much a part of the formal learning process and always should be.

In early August, Director of the Honors College, Mr. Ostroff, and Modern Language Department Chair, Ms. Whittenbraker, and I took our 9th grade cohort of Honors College students to north Central Maine, where we paddled the Penobscot River and climbed the highest mountain in the state, Katahdin. We canoed, portaged (pulled the canoes out and carried them through the woods, and hiked rather rigorously.  We also took on some challenging reading from Henry David Thoreau. The physical and mental exercises were difficult, by design, but I know every student learned a great deal about him or herself. And I know their neurons were fired up after such physical work!  Unpacking Thoreau is not an easy task for college freshman, and our high school freshman wrestled well with this material!

Sometimes I am tickled by what I read, especially when it is couched as a “Eureka” moment. In my Mother’s case (and for so many of my wonderful, patient, kind and compassionate teachers), great teachers have always known that the objectives of accomplishing the curricular goals of the class or course and student performance and mastery must be met with planning and creativity. Every now and then, a little dose of the outdoors, a stick and a pile of dirt, may be just what the doctor ordered…

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