Dr Rajendra Ramlogan
“We are the world. We are the children. We are the ones who make a brighter day.” (We are the World). Nestling on the foothills of the Northern Range is an exemplary primary education school. The Curepe Presbyterian School was established in 1929 by the Canadian Missionaries. It was one of the few primary schools along the East-West Corridor to possess a beautiful playing field. Indeed, it was always a heart-warming sight to see the students pouring out onto the playing field, to play and bond with each other. Young girls walking around holding hands and sweaty boys running back and forth with unrestrained exuberance. What a sight to behold!
Alas, this joy was soon to end. Being a victim of its success, the school’s enrolment exceeded its capacity and in April 2014, the construction of a new school started on the school’s playing field. The expectation was that the building would be completed by September 2015. Today, driving past the Curepe Presbyterian School there is now the sad spectre of an incomplete building occupying the playing field and the silenced voices of children no longer able to experience the exhilaration of playing.
Are our administrators unaware of the importance of physical education to the well-being of children? Obesity is inexorably rising. “In the United States, the percentage of children and adolescents affected by obesity has more than tripled since the 1970s. Data from 2015-2016 show that nearly one in five school age children and young people (six to 19 years) in the United States has obesity. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
A major study has already identified the relationship between the brain and physical fitness. “Researchers have found an association between physical fitness and the brain in nine-and ten-year-old children: Those who are more fit tend to have a bigger hippocampus and perform better on a test of memory than their less-fit peers. The new findings suggest that interventions to increase childhood physical activity could have an important effect on brain development.” (Art Kramer, Brain Journal, 2010). It is now also accepted learning that formal physical education can help facilitate healthy social interactions. Further, physical activities like running around the playground are muscle building and promote cardiovascular health.
The trend observed in the United States is also most present in T&T. In an interview, First Vice President of the Diabetes Foundation Andrew Dhanoo stated that primary school children are more obese than children of the same age group in the United States. "Of the 200,000 people, a quarter of them don't even know that they have diabetes. These are the statistics in total." "What we know for children is at every age group, right up to Standard Five our children are heavier, more overweight than children in the United States." (Loop July 27, 2017).
The observation by the Diabetes Foundation has been echoed by the current Minister of Health. “Between 1999 and 2009, there was a 400 per cent increase in overweight/obese children in T&T. These increased numbers are attributable to physical inactivity, decreased consumption of healthy foods and eating sugary, unhealthy foods which are filled with trans fats and cholesterol. As Minister of Health, I have taken a keen interest in non-communicable diseases, due to these alarming statistics.” (Seeta Persad, Newsday June 8, 2018). It is immediately noticeable that physical inactivity is named as a prime suspect in the obesity crisis facing our children.
Why has it taken over four years to construct a school with no opening date in sight? Is our Minister of Education unaware of the obesity crisis among our children? Is the Minister of Education blind to current research showing a clear nexus between brain development in children and physical activity? Perhaps the Minister of Health should seek to educate his colleague as to the importance of physical activities for children. The playing field should return in the soonest possible time to the children who are now deprived of its benefits. Assuming of course that when the new building is occupied, the old building would be demolished and converted into a playing field.
It was at an Independence Youth Rally, Queen’s Park Oval on August 30, 1962, that our former prime minister Dr Eric Williams eloquently proclaimed “When you return to your classes after Independence, remember, therefore, each and every one of you, that you carry the future of Trinidad and Tobago in your school bags.” What Dr Williams missed was that the future was not just in the book bags but in the body of the children. As a nation, we must move swiftly to ensure that physical activity is part of school activities. Children must be given all the tools to properly develop, any less will imperil the future of our nation. “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” (Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa).
Prof Rajendra Ramlogan is a lecturer in Commercial and Environmental Law at the University of the West Indies.