Children need to move. They need to run, jump, cavort, slither, and clap. As they move, they express themselves: they laugh, shout, exclaim, and cry out.
To deny children the right to move is to deny their humanity and their essential ability to communicate through their bodies. Yet that is exactly what is happening to thousands of immigrant youth, as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently announced the elimination of recreation opportunities for immigrant children, as well as education and legal services.
Perhaps recreation seems less critical than the other two areas slated for elimination. In particular, immigrant advocates commenting on the decision often focus on the loss of legal assistance. Wendy Young, director of Kids in Need of Defense, criticized all three cuts but told NPR that the most critical loss would be that of legal aid. She said that these children, “…need a lawyer to help them navigate the very complex U.S. immigration system. These are literally life-and-death decisions that are being made in these children's cases.”
Yet legal aid, recreation and education are not separate but rather three intertwined elements. Children express themselves through their bodily movements, and movement helps them articulate their emotions to lawyers. Confined physically, their linguistic and emotional expressions whither, impeding their education.
I have personal experience with this — my younger son was literally banging his head against the wall in his kindergarten classroom where they had only 20 minutes of recess in the entire six-hour day. We moved him to a school which integrates movement into learning and he has thrived. In the book “Movement Matters,” Montessori teacher Melani Fuchs and her colleague, Diane Craft, wrote: “Movement is integral to the way our brains and bodies learn. We take information into our bodies through all our senses. The information we receive from the senses is integrated within the brain and guides our movements. From these never-ending cycles of sensory input and motor output, we create ourselves.”
Kids in detention are denied the opportunity to create themselves. Many have experienced trauma in their home countries: extreme poverty, gang and other forms of violence. Then, they made the dangerous journey through Mexico and across the border, where they are detained by Border Patrol, sometimes separated from family members, and often treated as criminals. During trauma, the verbal part of the brain shuts down; the experience is stored at a sensory level. Studies in treating post-traumatic stress disorder have shown that in order to access these memories, one cannot rely on language but rather must use various strategies that enable the person to remember. For example, therapists of younger children often use play therapy involving movement, observing children’s interactions with toys as well as their physical gestures.
People, and especially children, cannot express themselves if they do not feel secure. The complex relationship between mind and body operates at a subconscious level but one that is also, in many situations, common sense. We hug children, for example, when they are scared or nervous. Physical touch releases the hormone oxytocin, which is known as the “cuddle hormone” because it promotes bonding and reduces stress.
Children who are denied these physical interactions and movements will not be able to verbally express their experiences and fears of return to their home countries. Even if they manage to secure legal assistance — a critical element, as Young noted — they may not be able to articulate for an attorney what has happened to them.
These restrictions on movement for detained children are not new. A human rights investigation by the University of Texas and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found that at the Karnes family detention center in Texas children were “written up for doing ‘children things,’ like running or laughing loudly or playing too much.” Residents were “required to participate in several daily body counts. During these times, all residents are required to remain in their designated indoor locations. If children cannot remain still during this time, they may be written up for a disciplinary infraction.” Furthermore, “infants and toddlers may not be placed on the ground to engage in developmentally-appropriate activities such as crawling.”
At the Homestead detention center in Florida for unaccompanied minors — most between the ages of 13 and 17 — youth are prohibited from touching each other. As British newspaper The Guardian reported after its reporter toured the facility, “There is a strict no-touching rule, meaning that even a child who hugs a sibling could be written up and face disciplinary action.”
The elimination of physical recreation for detainee children will further exacerbate their isolation. Separated from their families and friends, detained youth were at least able to form alliances with each other on the soccer field and playgrounds, through a tackle, a high five, a fist bump. Perhaps these forms of solidarity, the basis of resistance, are what the Department of Health and Human Services really fear.
Jane Juffer is a professor at Cornell University, where she holds a joint appointment with the Department of English and the Program of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, where she is also director of undergraduate studies. She is the author of four books, most recently Don't Use Your Words! Children's Emotions in a Networked World (NYU 2019).