When I was in the first grade, there was no Women's World Cup soccer. There was only kickball. Before I ever laced up my cleats in an after-school league, I got my kicks sending a big, red bouncy ball as far as I could on the playground at recess.
Rather than trying to figure out how to get kids to exercise more, America should spend its resources getting kids, particularly young girls, to play more. And the single best way to do that is to invest in recess.
Play matters - more than we think. It is essential to the physical, mental and emotional development of children. Research shows that when kids experience physical activity as fun, they are more likely to be active throughout lives. Play is also how kids develop self-confidence and learn the value of teamwork. To prepare our kids to reach their full potential - in school and in life - we need to make play a part of every day.
It might have only been 30 minutes a day, but I lived for recess. I had so much fun playing kickball that I begged my mom to let me enroll in soccer. And it gave me the release I needed to help me work through challenges at school and at home.
Unfortunately, in many communities today - especially low-income communities - kids come to school not really knowing how to engage in healthy play. They don't know how to make up and follow the rules of games or how to resolve conflicts. Too often, games end in fights - and more complicated games break down before they can really get going. Most kids, especially girls, end up on the sidelines, disengaged.
It's no wonder that many schools, when faced with increased pressure to perform on standardized tests, are cutting recess to make room for class time. But it's a huge mistake. If we lose recess, we also lose one of the most important opportunities to invest in our kids' health and well-being. A new report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation concludes that recess, compared with physical education and after-school programs, is the single best way to raise the overall level of physical fitness among American children. It holds special promise for young girls, who are more likely to be overweight or obese than boys.
That same report also highlights the success that one program has had in bringing safe and healthful play to low-income schools, in part by staffing recess with well-trained adults. Sports4Kids, which runs full-time programs in 18 Baltimore public elementary schools, puts recess coaches on the playground to introduce kids to games such as four square and kickball, which are disappearing from the schoolyard. They teach simple ways to resolve conflicts and keep games going.
Schools that have revitalized recess report that a majority of boys and girls now enjoy being physically active and are more likely to get involved in activities during and after school. And teachers report that the positive experiences on the playground are translating into more productive time in the classroom.
The movement to rescue recess is spreading. This week, the National PTA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Basketball Association, Cartoon Network, Sports4Kids and others are launching a national initiative to enlist adults around the country to donate 1 million volunteer hours to help facilitate healthful recess programs in their communities.
If we want our kids to be champions in whatever they do, we have to teach them not just in the classroom but in the schoolyard as well. Take it from someone who learned everything she ever needed to know from kickball.
Julie Foudy was recently inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame after a career that included two Women's World Cup titles and two Olympic gold medals.