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People's Daily Online>>China Society

Schools build the mind, not body

By Tang Yue in Tianjin and Yang Wanli (China Daily)

08:29, December 05, 2011

Pupils line up for a health check at a school in Hefei. When the semester began in September, the city set up a health record for each student, hoping to provide scientific data for better health. Ge Chuanhong / for China Daily

The Chinese-language teacher "borrowed" the time allocated for physical education. Again. Instead of 45 minutes of running and playing, there was a quiz on reading and writing.

"We're used to it. We knew she would never pay (the time) back," Rong Yiyang, a third-grader, said as he blinked behind his glasses.

Losing a sports lesson that Tuesday morning pained him more than ever. The 9-year-old boy had just quit the school's basketball team because practice was conflicting with his after-school English class.

Here comes the unwritten rule for Rong and most other Chinese students: Exercise is not bad, but study takes priority - despite a nationwide requirement that schools get kids moving regularly.

With "highly dedicated" teachers of major subjects, and "tiger mothers" and "wolf fathers", Chinese children become better at solving complex mathematics problems and speaking a foreign language, but they pay the price in excess weight and decreased physical ability.

Strength, endurance, explosive force and flexibility have all diminished since 1985, when the Ministry of Education began nationwide testing of students ages 7-22 every five years. Running 1,000 meters, for example, serves as an index of endurance. Today's 12-year-old boys take one minute longer to finish the run than those in 1985.

Many factors contribute to the phenomenon, including longer hours in front of the computer and more McDonald's and KFC, experts say. But the lack of exercise - due to the heavy burden of study and parents' failure to grasp the importance of exercise - is mainly to blame.
'His happiest moment'

Yiyang studies at one of the best primary schools in Tianjin. He gets up 6:50 in the morning on school days, and his father drives him to school. They have to arrive before 7:40, when the morning reading starts. A student who is tardy three times must write a paper of self-criticism.

He gets home at 4 in the afternoon and starts doing homework. After dinner, he gets back to his schoolwork for some English reading and listening until about 8:30. And then it's bedtime.

The kids at his school are scheduled for four lessons of physical education a week, but that's not always how it turns out. On weekends, Yiyang's schedule includes an eye checkup at the hospital every two weeks, homework, mathematics class and sleeping. Exercise hardly squeezes in.

Posted on the living room wall for the nanny is a highly detailed, hand-written guide to looking after the boy, including one that reads, "Use the blue quilt when the indoor temperature reaches 23 degrees Celsius." There is no room for exercise among the note's 23 points.

"I love sports very much," Yiyang said. "I can play basketball, tennis, pool and badminton. But I have to wait until summer vacation."

He actually plays basketball sometimes after school or with his father, but his mother worries that he'll catch cold, as he has in the past.

"I can tell he enjoys playing on the court very much. It is his happiest moment in life," said his mother, Yang Hua, 45.

"But in the winter he always coughs and has a running nose. Sick leave means more homework and more to catch up when he goes back to school. Then it leads to a heavier mental burden for the child and makes him more vulnerable to disease. I really don't know what to do."

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