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A Look at Trends in Recreation and Sports in Schools and School Districts

At schools across the country, recess and physical education are being sacrificed for academics, an unfortunate result of an increased focus on standardized testing, and due to a misconception that the need to compete internationally means a need to increase time spent on reading, writing and math, despite the fact that numerous studies have shown that kids who get some physical activity and time for free play tend to perform better academically. The kids who do get in daily activity tend to be those who go out for the football team, the soccer team, or otherwise participate in sports. How are these trends affecting kids across the country, and are changes expected in the next few years?

The vast majority of respondents from the industry survey who said they were from schools or school districts were working for public schools. Just 3 percent work for private schools. In addition, more than half of these schools and school districts are in rural areas. Another 35.4 percent are in suburban communities, and 12.6 percent are in urban areas.

Operations and Economics

Around half of respondents from schools said they expect the number of people using their facilities to increase from 2005 to 2006, from 2006 to 2007, and from 2007 to 2008. Around 6 percent projected decreases for each year. There was not much change in the number of people anticipating an increase, no change or a decrease year over year, compared to the general survey population, where more people expect increases with each year that passes.

Revenue growth is much slower in schools and school districts than in the general survey population. More than half of general survey respondents said their revenues for 2006 were higher than in 2005, while just over a quarter of school districts said the same. And those numbers don't get much higher in succeeding years. From 2006 to 2007, just 35.5 percent of school respondents said they expected their revenues to increase, and from 2007 to 2008, less than a third expected revenue increases. This is largely due to the public nature of these facilities. Very few charge any kind of fees for usage of their facilities, so revenues all must come from funding of one sort or another, usually taxes, which can be extremely limited, and state funding, which is also feeling a tightening crunch.

Operating budgets among the general survey population were nearly 12 percent higher than those for schools and school districts, whose average yearly operating expenditures for fiscal 2006 were just over $1 million. In addition, respondents from schools expect their operating budgets to increase at a much slower rate than other respondents, just 4 percent between fiscal 2006 and fiscal 2008, compared to an 8.2 percent increase among the general survey population. (See Figure 38.) This may explain why more respondents from schools and school districts—more than four out of five—said budgets are a top concern for their facilities. Within the next three years, schools and school districts were second only to military installations in listing budgets as a top concern. As one respondent said, "Schools are always operating on a limited amount of money."

Schools employ far more full-time staff than other types of facilities, for obvious reasons, with the need for administrators, teachers and aides of all kinds. However, respondents from school districts, are expecting their staffs to grow more slowly than the average respondent. Among schools and school districts the average number of employees is

projected to grow 6.3 percent from 372.6 on average now to 396 in 2008. This compares to a 10.1 percent increase expected for all facility types in the same time period.

Schools were about average in terms of their certification requirements, with 81 percent of respondents from school facilities saying they required their staff to get certified. The most common certification among schools was a coaching certification, which is required by nearly three-quarters of respondents. Food service and lifeguard certifications were required by nearly one-third of respondents, and many also listed teaching certifications as a requirement.

School Facilities

More than 70 percent of respondents from schools and school districts said they had plans to build new, add onto their existing facilities or renovate their existing facilities in the next three years. More than one-third plan to build new, and another third plan to add to their existing facilities. More than half are planning renovations.

Schools plan to spend 47 percent more on average on their additions, renovations and new facilities than the average survey respondent. The average amount budgeted for these plans is $5.6 million. This is likely due to the need to construct entire schools, rather than simply parks or community centers.

The most common amenities currently found in school facilities were mainly related to athletics and physical education. The top amenities featured (all of which are included in three-quarters or more of the school facilities in our survey) included locker rooms, bleachers and seating, concession areas, natural turf sports fields, indoor sports courts and running tracks. Schools were also more likely than the average respondent to include outdoor sport courts, climbing walls and synthetic turf sports fields.

Among the top amenities respondents said their school facilities will add within the next three years were bleachers and seating, synthetic turf sports fields, fitness centers, locker rooms and concession areas. Many also are planning to add sport courts—both indoor and outdoor—playgrounds and climbing walls.

The higher incidence of facilities planning to add synthetic turf sports fields in the next several years is likely driven by several factors, including the need to program a day's worth of events on the field. Natural turf needs to rest in between events, making it difficult to allow for physical education classes to take place on the field all day long. One South Carolina-based director of athletics said that "availability of outdoor athletic fields" was his top concern.

Another factor is the perception of improved safety with synthetic turf. Students playing on synthetic turf are less likely to be playing on worn-out, overburdened turf, and they're also less likely to be exposed to dangerous pesticides and herbicides.

In fact, one trend that may take hold in many communities is the restriction of fertilizer use, which could impact facilities' decisions to build natural turf or synthetic turf sports fields. Florida recently became the first state to restrict fertilizer content for lawns, farms, golf courses and landscaping to low- or no-phosphate. The move aims to protect Lake Okeechobee and other waterways from pollution. The rule does allow for application of larger amounts of fertilizer for golf courses and athletic fields.

One New York-based director of buildings and grounds cited similar concerns as his top issue: "Keeping up the condition of our fields and facilities with ever-increasing usage and ever-tightening budget concerns and environmental restrictions."

According to John Miller, an associate professor of Sport Management at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, schools are trending toward team sports like basketball, football and soccer, and away from individual sports—or what Miller calls "Olympic sports"—like track and field or swimming.

"I see a trend away from sports that might be more lifetime-oriented like running and swimming. I'm not exactly sure why," he said. "It may be because of publicity. You see football, you see soccer, you see men's and women's basketball, softball and baseball. I think it might have some reflection on some of the classes in physical education being offered."

Nearly half of school respondents said their facilities currently include a fitness center, and more still are planning to add fitness facilities, a trend that can help encourage kids to develop a lifetime devotion to fitness habits that until now has often been left for college recreation facilities.

Miller explained that attracting high school students into a fitness facility might be a good way to adapt physical education to changing needs and perceptions.

"Instead of having physical education in the gym setting, have more high schools when they're building the school incorporate things like the colleges—not necessarily to that extent, but a facility that's going to be nice and attract students to come to class at a place where they could do aerobics, Spinning, machine lifting and weightlifting—incorporate more of the lifetime fitness aspects into it," Miller said. "We could have classes in jogging, Spinning, Pilates, tae kwon do. It would be difficult to do that, but you could tap into the college and student teaching. I don't know why if the student is in physical education or something similar and is student teaching basketball and football, why can't they teach weight training?"

Miller added that at the high school level, this would allow kids who don't go out for sports to find an opportunity to enjoy some other kind of activity.

School Programming

By far the most popular program currently provided at school facilities is youth sports teams, provided at nearly three-quarters of schools. This is followed by sports tournaments and races, fitness programs, swimming programs, sport training and individual sports activities. When respondents were asked what programs they plan to add within the next three years, the most popular options were fitness programs, educational programs, and nutrition and diet counseling, followed by daycare or preschool programs and environmental education. And many respondents said their top concern was fitness among the nation's youth, citing a tendency of kids to be "lazy," "sedate" and "overweight."

For some time now, there has been a trend to drop physical education and recess from schools across the nation, a situation that is likely having a negative impact on kids' waistlines, and ultimately their health too.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about two-thirds of those in grades 9 through 12 do not engage in recommended levels of physical activity. Research published in the Journal of School Health shows that only 6 percent of middle schools provide physical education. And the Task Force on Community Preventive Services, an independent panel of experts making recommendations to the CDC, included school-based physical education as one of six recommended interventions to encourage people to get more active.

"Schools have given up recess and physical education time for more academics," Miller said, adding that our current approach is a far cry from the approach taken during the Cold War, when Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy encouraged physical fitness programs and physical education to ensure Americans—particularly those would become soldiers—were on par with the Communist countries.

"I think we need to have a paradigm shift to say in order to have an increase of our academics, we also have to look at the physical side of things," Miller added. "It doesn't do you any good to be an expert in math in your 20s when you also have heart problems. We have high schools in Lubbock that don't provide any physical education at all. People say that the kids are going to be physically active on their own, often by going out for sports. But what's the percentage of kids that go out for competitive teams?"

In some cases, Miller added, schools do introduce challenges that require kids to walk or run a certain amount of time, but these efforts often are expected to take place after school, rather than as a structured part of the school day. "It makes it problematic when the parents need to get involved," he explained. "It's a worthy item, but it's kind of a challenge to get that involvement."

Top Performance—or Just a Fašade?

After completing several studies with some of his colleagues, John Miller, an associate professor of Sport Management at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, said he has found that there is a behind-the-scenes trend that is endangering kids.

"At the high school level, there is an unseen trend toward giving interscholastic athletes performance-enhancing drugs," Miller said, adding that New Jersey has just passed legislation requiring random drug testing for steroids at the high school level. Texas also is likely to introduce legislation.

"To me, that tells me something," Miller said. "Congress and State Senates aren't going to do something until they really have the information. They're not always that proactive."

Miller and his colleagues have done studies that show that the majority of athletic directors were in favor of random drug testing for steroids, but simply cannot afford it.

"They rely heavily on their coaches to educate their students on performance-enhancing drugs, but they don't think they have enough knowledge of what those drugs do or don't do," he explained.

In fact, research conducted by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association in 2003 showed that approximately 1.1 million kids between 12 and 17 had taken performance-enhancing supplements or drugs. The same study showed that 76 percent could not identify negative side effects resulting from use of steroids, ephedra and similar substances.

"The message has been that in order to get that scholarship, you need to be bigger, faster and stronger than the people you compete against," Miller explained. "Can you do that without any chemical help? Presently there is no steroid testing that the schools do, and that's like saying, the speed limit here is 35 miles an hour, but we'll never have police checking. Why wouldn't you drive 55 or 60?"

A review of research conducted by the CDC showed that when physical education classes are increased in length, or when students are more active throughout the class, there are consistent gains in students' physical fitness. And apparently, legislators across the nation are beginning to get the message. A new bill signed into law by Florida Gov. Charlie Crist requires at least 30 minutes of physical education daily for students between kindergarten and the fifth grade. It also encourages middle schools and high schools to provide as much as 3 hours and 45 minutes of gym class weekly. Texas is working on similar legislation.

But physical education isn't the only way to get kids more active. Recess is also important, providing a needed break for younger kids and allowing a time for them to engage in more creative, free play. Despite evidence that shows that kids need recess time to relax, learn to interact and communicate, and get active, nearly 40 percent of American elementary schools have either eliminated recess altogether or are considering eliminating it. Still more have reduced their recess time so drastically that students can't really get started on a game before it's time to go back to their desks.

"Children who are physically active do better in the classroom," said National PTA President Anna Weselak in a press release announcing the organization's involvement in Rescuing Recess, a program that encourages schools to bring back recess time. "The research tells us that even if it means a reduction in class time, providing more time for physical activity can lead to increased test scores."

"Kids need the opportunity to play and recreate, and a lot of learning occurs during play," said Teresa Hendy, board member for the International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association's (IPEMA) Voice of Play Initiative, and president and owner of Site Masters Inc., a design and safety consulting company based in Cincinnati, Ohio. "That's a known fact, and I wonder where our educators are coming from that they would even consider the elimination of play opportunities."

Jean Schappet, an advisory board member for IPEMA's Voice of Play Initiative whose 25-year career in the playground industry includes consulting, designing play environments, teaching and writing, said the elimination of recess might make more sense in light of the fact that so many injuries that occur during school happen on the playground. "If they don't see the developmental benefits, and they do see that the injuries they're accountable for in the school are a result of kids being out on the playground, nobody wants to take the adult responsibility that's at the core of the incidence of injury," she said. "There is no such thing as a playground that can keep children safe. Only adults can supervise children to ensure safety."

Beyond the need for adult supervision on the playground, Hendy also cited a need for more creative play opportunities. "Children need more than the traditional play equipment," she said. "We're not giving them extended time during recess for fantasy play and imaginative play. We're not doing a real good job of it in our schools or our parks and recreation areas."

Schappet agreed, adding, "A lot of children are still playing on the same equipment their parents did, but the children are so sophisticated because of the exposure they have to multimedia. Generation-old play equipment doesn't satisfy the needs they have to explore their environment. Children have a developmental need to be engaged in productive play episodes during the school day, and children are wholesale being excluded from opportunities for independent play, even during recreational times after school and on weekends."

Schappet added that the "great hope" for enriching children's play time may come from early childhood and childcare facilities.

"Traditional childcare providers—whether it's home-based or center-based—have often relied heavily on the children's exposure to play," she said. "My work currently is involved in influencing those care providers to raise the bar in children's opportunity for play on a daily basis. Assuming that what is static is the play environment, where we can leverage some influence is in helping them understand that the quality of play is how the children get to experience the play—both in appropriation of time as well as the elements children are given to play with."

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