Chess and recess

Last week I saw Norwegian chess champion Magnus Carlsen on a 60 Minutes segment.  It’s a fun piece to watch; Carlsen is unusual among prominent chess players in that his manner is light and good-humored. That’s perhaps why he’s emerging as a bit of a superstar, and inspiring young people to try chess.  It’s by no means that other chess players aren’t light and good-humored; only that the visible ones have often done a fair amount of scowling and sulking in view of the public.

The segment mentions that chess is being taught in schools throughout the world and is compulsory in some countries.  I was interested to hear that because so many of the young people I meet who are bored by academic offerings that don’t challenge or engage them have tremendous capacity and patience for the likes of chess, but have to squeeze it into their extra-curricular time.  Chess gets so much done in the way of training the brain to handle large amounts of information and weigh options and consequences, of generally sharpening cognitive skill that it’s difficult to understand why we wouldn’t make room for it in the course of a school day.

There’s also mention of Carlsen’s physical exercise regimen as essential to his ability to concentrate.  It sounds like he takes it for granted, that the exercise is as important as the rest of the preparation he does for a game, at the computer and in his mind. Meanwhile so much of what we mandate for and expect of children dismisses what science has shown about that necessity of physical activity for optimal brain function.  John Ratey’s Spark is an excellent book on the topic. It’s interesting.  Children in school often report that recess is their favorite part of the day.  Adults laugh this off and cite it as reason for having to force kids to spend more time on academic subjects.  They only want to run around; they’re lazy and don’t know what’s good for them.  Maybe they know exactly what’s good for them, and that if we really wanted their memories and their cognitive skills to reach full capacity, there’d be more recess, not less.

This is your brain on exercise

Not just energized, but actually brighter. I’m reading John Ratey’s Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.  Parts of it are technical, but even just the first (less technical) section sheds some astonishing light on the relationship between movement and learning.

Here’s my quick summary of the content: exercise makes the brain work better.  The implications of what Ratey describes are huge – the potential for exercise to prime the brain for optimal learning and to balance its chemicals such that the likes of anxiety and depression can actually lose their grip on a person.  The research suggests that the key to solving the childhood obesity problem could also get us back on track with math and science – instead of increasing academic instructional time in kids’ days, we’d increase physical activity.  This could make for contentious discussion at the dinner table on Pennsylvania Avenue…

Kids already know this, of course, which is why when you ask many a child what their favorite part of the day is, they say recess.  It’s not because they’re lazy and they don’t feel like studying (though in many cases their classes probably are boring and so it’d be hard to blame them if they didn’t).  It’s because they know they need lots and lots of motion.  Who knows what might become possible if we let them have it.

Out of their seats

If we’re serious about fighting childhood obesity (and thus, obesity), it seems to me the best place to start would be decreasing the amount of sitting kids are required to do every day.  Of course we also need to make more nutritional food available to more kids, but that will take a lot more than letting them get up out of their seats.  Kids already want to be moving more, so we won’t likely be met with much resistance.

A recent University of Buffalo study offered another reason to infuse the young day with motion: reduced  stress reactivity, which from the sound of it not only offers an immediate benefit to the body but can also help reduce the chance of developing heart disease.  “The perception of a stressor as a threat is the beginning of the stress reactivity process, so if you can dampen that initial perception, then you reduce the magnitude of the fight-or-flight response,” says James Roemmich, the senior investigator on the study.

Apparently sending the body into fight-or-flight, which the world is fairly adept at doing, is not so good for it.  We’re not likely to eliminate the stressors any time soon, so we’ll do well to reduce their ill effects to the extent we can.  And if one thing we can do is let kids move around more, which they already want to, that seems like a good place to start.