A lot of campuses in Los Angeles have blacktop instead of a grassy playing… (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles…)
If I gain a few pounds this holiday season, I'm going to blame the anti-obesity program at my children's school.
Does that sound like the worst dieting excuse ever? I submit that such (deep fried) pretzel logic comes with being a parent in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
My children attend a Spanish immersion program in Highland Park. It's a good school, with caring teachers and a committed principal.
But like a lot of campuses in Los Angeles, Aldama Elementary has paved blacktop instead of a grassy playing field. With that comes a vexing rule: For safety's sake, children are discouraged from running free during recess, regardless of the obesity epidemic or the wealth of studies showing that exercise helps children focus.
Four years ago, some parents — aghast at their children's tales of being benched for running, and in despair at the havoc that children pent up all day could inflict when they got home — begged school officials to let the children run. But they were immovable (pun intended) and the rule stayed.
Then, a solution presented itself, although it was a solution dripping with saturated fat. The PTA partnered with Playworks, a nonprofit dedicated to improving play and physical fitness, to raise money for a coach to conduct running games at recess. The catch: Parents pay for it, in part, by buying, selling and, alas, eating cheesecake. A lot of cheesecake, $14,000 worth of it this fall alone.
"The irony ... is not lost on me," said Janelle McGlothlin, a member of the PTA's grants committee. But healthier fundraisers, like jog-a-thons and read-a-thons, failed to raise much cash. "The cheesecake sale makes way more money than anything else," she said.
So the parents sell cheesecake. But some also fume. What does it say about how we educate children that school officials would frown on running in a state where officials recently announced that only one in three kids are physically fit? What does it say that we would urge them to take time away from reading and playing to sell cheesecake, when one in five elementary school-age children in L.A. County is overweight?
Getting to the bottom of why the rule existed — or even what the rule actually was — was exercise in itself.
I spoke with Christopher Ortiz, the district's director of school operations, who said that LAUSD does not prohibit running. But it does set guidelines for safety, which, he acknowledged, can result in de facto limits on running, especially on campuses where there is no grass. (Why they have no grass is another story. Still another one is why so many campuses are locked up like Fort Knox on weekends and evenings in communities where there are few parks.)
"Many of our schools … have very limited space," Ortiz said. "The play areas are very narrow ... so as a principal you have to determine what can children do in terms of physical activity that will be safe."
At many campuses, school officials have come up with rules that permit running during organized, supervised games, such as kickball, but discourage wild games of tag or spontaneous free-for-alls where kids run wild.
But by the time it trickles down to children, the nuance can get lost.
One morning, I asked my son, who is in kindergarten, what the purpose of school was. The answer I was going for was something along the lines of "learning" or even "having fun."
He thought for a minute, then said soberly: "No running."
Ortiz, who was a principal himself for years, said he's never had a parent complain. "Would you have wanted me to permit wholesale running during recess?" Ortiz asked. "Or would you want me to make sure your kid is safe?"
I thought about this. Of course I want my kids to be safe. And I'm not oblivious to the risks of hundreds of kids blasting like maniacs across a small paved area. My daughter is only in second grade, but already, two of her friends have hurt themselves at school; one broke a bone, the other required stitches after a fall.
So, yes, the rules make sense. Until you remember how kids play. They don't always favor organized, supervised rounds of kickball. They like to hurl their little bodies through space, devising their own games, making up their own characters and scenarios, changing the rules every 45 seconds and, it is true, smashing into each other and falling down. That is one of the ways they explore the world, one of the ways they learn.
When I was about my daughter's age, my friends and I used to race across my school's grassy playing field at recess, and — in violation of numerous rules — we'd sneak through the woods, scramble over an old log, and run down a muddy hill onto a vacant field where no one could see us.
I can still recall how free we felt on that field, as if it were our own private fairyland, even though all we did was stand there. And I remember too the joyful exhilaration of our blood pumping through our bodies as we ran back to class when the bell rang, our legs carrying us so fast we were almost flying. That has stayed with me more vividly than anything I might have learned in second grade.
Still, now that I'm a parent, I'm less thrilled at the idea of my own children scrambling around alone in the woods. And the recess coach our PTA hired with the cheesecake money knows his job: The kids love his games.
So next time my kids come home with yet more pamphlets, hawking yet more overpriced sugary treats that I will be powerless to resist, I'll do my bit. But the taste is bittersweet.