Friday, February 5, 2010

Letter to Michelle Obama re: Childhood Obesity

Dear Mrs. Obama,

Thank you for bringing attention to childhood obesity. Decreasing the incidence of childhood obesity is a worthy cause and I applaud you for tackling this “epidemic.”

Many factors contribute to childhood obesity – genetics, diet, exercise, life-style, nutrition, economics, etc. And many solutions are offered to combat it: growing, buying and eating more nutritious food, making fewer trips to fast food restaurants, getting more exercise, spending less time in front of the television, improving access to outdoor recreation facilities, requiring physical education and recess in school, enhancing infrastructure to support walking and biking, reducing the number of ads for sweet and non-nutritious foods and beverages, etc.

Another contributing factor not mentioned in many articles about childhood obesity, however, is homework. Of the approximately 53 million school-aged children in the US (ages 5-17)*, how many millions of these children spend multiple hours during weeknights and weekends doing homework? Time spent doing homework that requires children to sit at a desk or in front of a computer for long hours after a 7-hour school day (in which much of the time is also spent sitting), should be a legitimate consideration when discussing contributing factors to childhood obesity.

Many of the steps to help stop obesity are achievable through common sense and by parents making different choices for their children. As you said, “We don't need to wait for some new invention or discovery to make this happen. This doesn't require fancy tools or technologies. We have everything we need right now — we have the information, we have the ideas, and we have the desire to start solving America's childhood obesity problem. The only question is whether we have the will."

Yes, I agree with your statement if we are talking about solutions such as: making wise choices at the grocery store and in restaurants, setting time limits on television and video games, walking and biking instead of driving, making healthy family dinners a priority, exercising with your children, planting edible gardens, encouraging your children to get outside and play, etc. But what about those factors over which parents and children have no control? Homework.

Unless your child goes to a very unique school, he or she is expected to do daily homework in this country. Much homework is assigned because teachers feel they don’t have enough time to cover what is expected of the mandated curriculum. And most homework in this country is graded and students are penalized for not doing it. Some students are penalized by having recess or lunch period taken away--a time during the day when most children need the chance to be active.

I respect your efforts, Mrs. Obama, to reduce childhood obesity. I ask that in future discussions of the causes of childhood obesity, you mention the fact that many children spend hours after school doing homework when they could be doing other, equally productive and active activities that promote good health.

If administrators and teachers around the U.S. hear the First Lady mention homework as a possible contributing factor to childhood obesity, then perhaps those same educators will begin having serious discussions rethinking the necessity of homework.


Kerry Dickinson

*53 million is an approximation from a 2004 US Census report:


  1. Kerry,

    This is a general comment on the push back on school homework. I understand the down side of having too much homework, especially when the homework has not thought through. However, I am equally, if not more, concern about the situation where students do not get to learn enough in the classrooms and have no homework that will help them compensate for the deficiency.
    Would you have some good articles on what a balanced situation should look like? It would be refreshing to see positive examples instead of seeing all the negative ones.

    Thank you for keeping us informed!

  2. Joanne,
    Thanks for your comment. If, as a parent you feel your children "do not get to learn enough in the classroom" and have to come home and do homework to "compensate for the deficiency" you have some options. First, you can always ask a teacher for more homework that relates to what the child is learning in school. (This is not what I would do, but it is always an option for parents who want to see their children doing more homework.) Second, you can have your child do something else after school instead of homework - exercise, play, cook dinner, do chores, relax, do sports or other extracurricular activities, hang out with friends, play music, work at a job, etc. Children of all ages will benefit from these non-homework, after school options. And remember that "more" is not always better. Just because a teacher gives more homework doesn't necessarily mean the child is learning more. They can benefit from it if it is inspired homework that promotes higher level thinking, especially in the upper grades. And in the lower grades, doing activities like board games or baking that promote using math skills will be a much more rewarding experience for the child than pouring over math worksheets.

  3. One thought that I continue to have for your(our) cause is that you should be positioning the things that you want to change with a positive “economic” spin for the schools and districts because honestly that is the only thing that people are listening too right now. I.e. (How much time do teachers spend grading homework…..eliminate homework….save x amount of teachers time correcting….in turn apply that time to save music…..get it. No additional cost to have a music program…..) The grass roots effort needs to be rethought and you need to change the medium of the message to include financial “reward”. Remember, you don’t always have to be right to get what is right.

  4. Great point to bring up with the first lady! I applaud the letter writer for pointing out that homework takes away a great deal of potential active time. That doesn't mean we can blame the schools for child obesity. We as parents have to take responsibility for our own children to make sure they have a balanced life-style where physical activity is included. I also think that's true for anything. Schools are in place to provide a specific kind of learning (be it good or bad) so as parents, we need to be willing to fill in the gaps and lead and guide our kids to be independent thinkers and learners. Let's just hope their "formal" education doesn't turn them off learning before they get there. I'm not knocking shcool, I just think that the way it is now leaves a lot to be desired by way of inspiring kids who aren't so self motivated.

  5. Nicole DeAvilla WhitingFebruary 5, 2010 at 2:04 PM

    Dear Kerry,

    Thank you for sharing your insightful letter to Mrs. Obama. I am a parent of two middle school children and I have read a lot of research, articles and books on the subject of student achievment, learning and homework. From the reseach consensus (from all sides of the issues) and personal observation, if I were a teacher today this is the homework that I would assign daily:

    1. Adequate sleep - 3-5yrs old need 11-13 plus naps, 5-12 yrs old need 10-11 hours, teens need 9.25 hours.

    2. Adequate exercise - 45 minutes of vigorous activity or 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity.

    3. Read or be read to - 30 minutes to an hour or more.

    None of these "interventions" cost money (books can be borrowed from the library. They are proven to increase student achievement - even in math. The first two assignments can directly help to prevent or reduce obesity as well as many other health issues.

    What are we waiting for?


  6. Amen, Nicole. I personally would add maybe some **brief** math practice to make those skills automatic, but teachers should absolutely focus their influence on reading, exercise & sleep. They talk so much about sending our kids to school "ready to learn"--and a well-rested, well-exercised, well-read kid? How is that not the definition of ready to learn? If all kids and teens were able & encouraged to follow your plan, not only would obesity rates decrease, but so would the social, emotional & behavioral problems so many schools are struggling with. Everyone would win.

    And great letter Kerry! The child obesity problem has been high profile for many years (not to say the coverage has improved anything), but rarely does anyone high profile mention homework as a factor. Excessive HW not only steals time from exercise and physical play, but the sleep it hijacks may also affect weight management. There are studies (albeit in adults) correlating adequate sleep with healthy weight. Never mind the type of carb cravings we're all vulnerable to, including kids, when stressed. How else to comfort yourself when you're sitting with 3 hours of mind-numbing assignments and test prep? You eat.

    When I look at the mental and **physical** side effects of mandatory excessive HW, esp. at the middle and high school levels where 3 hrs is considered light in some districts, I can't shake the notion that it borders on abuse. Or crosses the border :(

  7. I do witness much childhood obesity all around. How about parents engage their children in an outdoor fruit picking project? I've been knocking on doors for over a year now. I couldn't gain a pound of weight if I tried.

    My toddler is now a big helper in the project. She can count lemons and oranges, sort them, bag them and has a great spirit of sharing, while also learning about health/nutrition - and where our food really comes from.

    Perhaps teachers (oh, what a dream) could encourage their students, accompanied by their parents of course, to start a neighborhood fruit collection. Fruit mapping is also a fun activity. Write the streets down, map the various fruit trees, create a timeline of when each fruit ripens. There are so many natural resources around us in the Bay Area, yet so forgotten and discarded. Think sustainablility. Eco-friendly. Green project. Think green. Think lemons and oranges.

    Anything to motivate a teen to get out and walk a few minutes. Get the heart pumping. Develop social skills beyond the computer. Face to face interaction. Knocking on doors when you see a fruit tree. Talk to the homeowner, ask permission to pick a bag of fruit. Sort of like selling candy bars or car washes, but asking for fruit. It really isn't that difficult.

    What would it take to implement in the highschools? How many children have actually tasted a fresh orange directly from a tree? I know when I grew up, I hadn't that luxury, and I never thought to ask a neighbor for their fruit. Now I know. And, now I cannot stop. :)

    I have ideas on my website too.

    Thanks for sharing the letter to Mrs. Obama. Perhaps I'll be inspired to draft one of my own to her as well. Happy Homework and Happy Harvesting!

  8. Great letter. We spend hours every night on homework. And yes,I think parents are being used to teach what that cannot teach in the classroom. We should be paid substitute wages.
    As far as exercise, my son has given up baseball (the only sport he excels at) because of the amount of homework he has. He's only 9. My daughter has gymnastics once a week, but is not signing up for Spring session because during Star testing time, the homework doubles. She's only 8. They sit all day long! Recess and lunch times have been cut back so they can attend extra "assemblies" to teach the kids how to get along? Have them play sports. The P.E. program is status quo from the 60's.--boring exercises and running of laps. Why not introduce several sports: dance, Yoga, Ti Chi, to foster a love of exercise? Make it fun,unique and exciting where every child can excel at something. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure this out. Until they start making changes in the way they do things, I will vote NO on every bond that comes along.

  9. Do you know that you can opt out of STAR testing? I did this last year for my youngest son and plan on doing it again this year. See this website for more details:

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  12. Really nice, Obesity is really devastating and may result in depression. Child obesity is really a serious problem.

  13. I agree with all of you guys. Homework should either be banned or strictly limited in all schools across the nation. All we are waiting for is someone to stand up against homework. Who's going to do it though?

  14. I will stand up against homework!!!! LOL :)
    But seriously, the dude's right. Somebody has to take a stand.

  15. AWESOME LETTER!!!!!! I'm glad someone feels the way I feel about homework. That is sucks and is extremely stupid!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I mean wtf is up with homework?!!!!!!!