by Julia Steiny
Angela Hanscom is a pediatric occupational therapist. A very worried occupational therapist.
And who are they, anyway? These therapists help kids (and adults) get over or mitigate the barriers to daily occupations — bathing, toileting, social functioning, gaining more independence — if they’re injured, developmentally delayed, or otherwise disabled. They help people on the autism spectrum interact with others. They understand how to teach a Down Syndrome child to take as much care of herself as possible.
Occupational therapists are also among the people who work with America’s 6.4 million kids between ages 4 and 17 who’ve been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD. That number has grown to 11% of the age group. We’re the only country to break double digits in this sad stat. Most countries barely make it over the decimal point. England, usually second after the U.S. in worst-in-the-developed-world social health statistics, has about 2.4% diagnosed.
So, among her other clients, Hanscom’s include kids who have the occupational difficulty of tolerating schools. Most are boys. Many have had their fidgeting calmed by medication, but they still need strategies for how to sit still all day and resist the noise coming from their bodies begging for movement.
While working in classrooms of wriggly kids, Hanscom started seeing what she thought must be physical anomalies among them. So she solicited others to help her conduct research. To their horror, they found “that most of the children in the classroom had poor core strength and balance. In fact, we tested a few other classrooms and found that when compared to children from the early 1980s, only one out of twelve children had normal strength and balance.”
A kid’s body is designed to train its own vestibular (balance) system.
Balance involves a sophisticated integration of sensory data — sight, sound, movement — that helps people control their motion, equilibrium and spatial orientation. Young bodies learn to regulate balance by moving in every possible direction. This is why kids like to play with speed, twirl until they’re dizzy and fall down, dance, jump, swing, skip. Their seeming physical madness is evolution’s way of helping a kid calibrate the physics of staying upright while walking, running, etc.
And the “core strength” Hanscom refers to is what the Pilates people often call the “girdle of muscle,” around the abdomen and the lower back. The core supports everything else that uses gross motor skills.
Ironic, isn’t it, that as people age, their core strength and balance are the two things that become universally weaker. And here we are creating a younger generation starting life with those weaknesses right out of the gate.
In the school off-season, Hanscom runs a camp, Timbernook, which for all the world looks like a forest kindergarten or nature-focused adventure playground. In other words, it looks like a place where kids can actually play. Not surprisingly, when ADD kids go to Timbernook, their symptoms disappear. They no longer have to battle the crummy feeling of being a constant nuisance to the teacher, because at camp their fidgeting is free to erupt into full-on thrashing about. ADD is considered a neurological disorder, but increasingly some of us believe that some kids’ bodies scream for attention so loudly that the noise ruins kids’ ability to concentrate for long. At Timbernook, kids’ bodies are finally learning a form of basic education that the very structure of regular school forbids.
What subject is so valuable that it’s worth sacrificing learning balance?
Picture a typical classroom. Consider what Hanscom says:
“The problem: children are constantly in an upright position these days. It is rare to find children rolling down hills, climbing trees, and spinning in circles just for fun. Merry-go-rounds and teeter-totters are a thing of the past. Recess times have shortened due to increasing educational demands, and children rarely play outdoors due to parental fears, liability issues, and the hectic schedules of modern-day society. Let’s face it: Children are not nearly moving enough, and it is really starting to become a problem.”
“Starting?” I dunno. That 11% statistic begs to differ.
Yes, schools are part of the problem. But schools are only a reflection of the larger society. Parents are absolutely insane for safety these days. They’ve heard the line that “sitting is the new cancer.” They know that clinging to electronics, indoors, for hours at a stretch can’t be good for kids. But… Even kids who are involved in sports tend to sit the rest of the time. They don’t work on cars, create pick-up games, build stuff or ride bikes to a fishing hole. They get a shot of activity. And then sit.
So while we fuss about nuances of Common Core, we stop children from learning the most basic things they’ll need to support their daily occupations. Drugs and therapy only mask the body’s biological need to cavort about. Is this really working for the kids?
Hat tip to Valerie Strauss for reprinting Hanson’s blog on her Answer Sheet.