Naomi Buck is a Toronto-based freelance writer and mother of two.
In the last week, two Ontario schools have stepped into the lives of students to save them from menaces of which they were blissfully unaware. One was the cartwheel, the other was fat.
While M.T. Davidson Public School in Callander, near North Bay, has outlawed cartwheels on its playground, Convent Glen Catholic School in suburban Ottawa is limiting students to one piece of pizza at lunch. All for their own good.
What, one wonders, will be next?
It's not so long ago that the cartwheel was considered a force for good. Requiring no money or equipment, and just a little skill readily obtained from an elder, the cartwheel expressed nothing more – and nothing less – than a child's desire to turn the world on its head for one carefree moment. Likewise pizza: a delicious, all-in-one meal that demanded no cutlery. Cartwheels and pizza were two of childhood's simple pleasures.
Why do schools want to take the simple and the pleasure out of childhood? Of cartwheels, Todd Gribbon, principal of M.T. Davidson Public School warned: "The activity can cause concussions, and neck and wrist injuries" – not that any of these had ever transpired at his school. Defending the pizza ration, Ottawa Catholic School Board spokesperson Mardi de Kemp explained that, in accordance with the Ministry of Education's nutrition guidelines, "the school council and school administration agreed that one slice of pizza is a reasonable approach for their community."
Reasonable approach is a highly subjective term. The ministry's guidelines – aimed to restrict the amount of junk food sold in schools – are not, in themselves, a bad idea. But is it reasonable to deny a hungry child a second piece of pizza because it would exceed the ministry's fat allowance? Might it not be more reasonable to offer that child as much as she can eat of something that doesn't violate the guidelines? Such meals do exist, just not at Pizza Pizza. And while they're at it, maybe administrators can ask staff to come up with classroom rewards other than suckers, candy canes and gummi bears – all of which the ministry prohibits.
Furthermore, is it reasonable to ban an activity on the basis of conceivable but highly unlikely outcomes? If so, better give up computers which can cause visual impairment, bad posture and carpal tunnel syndrome.
The time is ripe for a little evidence-based policy making. There are real dangers facing Canadian kids and pizza and cartwheels are not among them. Cars are in fact the main killer of Canadian children, accounting for 49 per cent of deaths, according to Parachute, a national organization dedicated to injury prevention. Neither cartwheels nor gymnastics generally finds any mention in Parachute's exhaustive 2016 report on injury trends among Canadian children. Obesity, on the other hand, is a real problem, affecting roughly one in four Canadian children, as are eating disorders.
What role can schools play in addressing these ills? For one thing, keep them active. Don't ban cartwheels, teach them. Prioritize the needs of pedestrians and cyclists, rather than handing over the front of the school to belligerent drivers every morning. Beef up the phys-ed programs and resurrect cooking classes; withholding a slice of pizza is not going to prevent obesity, but teaching kids the pleasure of movement and sport might.
If school boards are concerned about litigious parents, why not do like the Toronto District School Board, which sends home a form at the beginning of the year outlining the kinds of physical activity that take place in the school and the risks therein, and asks parents to acknowledge these with a signature. According to the principal, the signature rate at our elementary school is 100 per cent.
To return to first principles: Schools are in the business of educating children, not raising them. Education, from the Latin educare, connotes leading; away from ignorance, toward knowledge. Allowing them to grow. Let them do cartwheels and find a better pizza.