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Ahlin: Recess, cursive writing barometers of change

Jane Ahlin

Call me a fan of recess and cursive writing, although my enthusiasm isn't grounded in experience gleaned as a parent-advocate for those subjects.

Well, let me walk that back a bit. A group of us did raise a fuss when we discovered our children in elementary school were eating lunch in their snow pants and boots to minimize the hassle of getting them ready to play outdoors immediately after lunch. As I remember, our concerns were received in a friendly and understanding way, but nothing changed. After all, there were only so many minutes in the school day.

While the number of minutes in the school day is no different today, most schools long ago realized that kids too hot in outdoor winter wear and squirmy to get out to play were unlikely to eat well at lunch. Along with that, more pressing reasons arose that caused school administrators to step back and reevaluate school lunch and recess.

The most obvious, of course, was the rise in obesity among young children, a problem never before seen in America. And although childhood obesity reflects a host of cultural factors, de-emphasizing physical activity in schools during the '80s and '90s contributed to the problem.

That's not to say that teachers and administrators thought physical exercise was unnecessary. They knew it was the best way for kids to let off steam. And yet, I don't remember discussions of the importance of free (unstructured) play during school hours in comparison to the organized physical activity of gym class, or of strategic placement of physical activity -- including short bursts -- in a student's day to enhance learning. Physical activity was important; it just wasn't viewed as key to academic performance.

Sometimes it's hard to think back to how different the worries of that time were, not to mention the mindsets of school boards, parents, administrators and teachers. For instance, looked at from today's perspective, the notion that school boards would allow Channel One in junior high and high school classrooms seems bizarre. Ostensibly a service that put free TVs in the classroom to provide daily news of the world, Channel One really was an advertiser's dream, a "free" service that made ads for candy bars and pop part of school curriculum.

Today's schools don't even allow vending machines with empty-calorie drinks and treats on school grounds, much less run ads for them on school time. Indeed, at the elementary school level today, it's not unusual for teachers to restrict the kinds of snacks children can bring from home to have with morning milk.

The point is, the adult world had to relearn that helping kids form good habits -- balanced habits -- is as important, or more important for putting them on a path toward lifelong health and learning than trying out new theories and fitting more into school days.

Maybe it's a stretch to compare attitudes toward recess and lunch a few decades ago to the current trend of not teaching cursive writing. (Maybe it's better compared to the period last century when teaching phonics was passé.) I hasten to add that in our part of the world, cursive writing is taught, third grade through fifth grade, much the way it always has been. In many parts of the country, however, that's not true. Many school districts have removed cursive writing entirely, while others have shifted it to art class, treating it much like calligraphy.

What has prompted the change is the real need for children to be proficient at keyboarding by fourth or fifth grade and able to use today's tools for communication: computers, iPads and cellphones. For that to happen, something else has to give. That current "something else" is cursive writing.

The problem is that we don't yet know what children will lose if a pidgin form of writing replaces the slow process of linking brain to fluid hand movement demanded by cursive writing. The argument in favor of dropping cursive writing is that nobody uses it anymore (like the slide rule, relegate it to history). But what if -- as was discovered when teaching phonics was abandoned way back, or for that matter, when recess wasn't seen as relevant to learning -- an entire generation is affected negatively? What if that tedious process is a basic component of learning?

Ahlin writes a column for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is a part of Forum News Service. Email her at