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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

The New PE Runs on Fitness, Not Competition

Collaborative games, zip lining, and classroom aikido are part of a new physical education movement that makes kids smarter. More to this story.
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The New PE Runs on Fitness, Not Competition (Transcript)

Narrator: Physical education has long been synonymous with running laps, jumping jacks, and competitive sports. But an increasing number of schools are taking a fresh new approach to PE. At San Rafael High School in Northern California PE is all about fitness, fun, and high-flying adventure.

C.J.: The new physical education is getting kids to understand why they are doing things. You know, not just barking orders but also helping them learn and understand how their bodies work, why it's important to have this understanding throughout their lives. We try to get buy-in from the kids and we try to implement the fitness and the exercise into games and activities where they're actually moving their bodies and getting in shape but they're also having fun.

Narrator: Technology helps to individualize the workouts.

C.J.: The watch is recording the heart rate and the strap under their shirts is picking it up.

Narrator: Healy uses a PDA to take attendance and make notes and adds the heart rate data to each student's individual sportfolio.

C.J.: The beaming device just takes the data off the watch and sends it to the computer which plots it on a graph.

So here is Juan's fitness results.

Okay so you're going to untie by working together and you can discuss the strategy if you need to.

Narrator: Most classes include a cooperative challenge like untying a human knot.

C.J.: We put them into groups where they're with students of all different races and backgrounds and languages and we give them challenges and we give them problems to solve.

Student: Put your arm down and walk over.

C.J.: You know in the case of kids who don't speak the same language, they have to find other ways to communicate to solve the problem.

Student: There you go, yeah.

Judith: If you have to do it as team and there are all these rules as to how you do it, you're in the problem-solving and critical thinking and whether or not we put those words to it at that moment, that's what they're doing. Those are essential skills in the classroom and everything we do in life.

Student: There we go!

Student: You got it.

C.J.: When the challenge is over whether they're successful or not, you always bring them back together. You always debrief. Get them to think about what they've done.

Good, Juan?

Juan: We communicated.

C.J.: You communicated.

Student: We didn't give up.

C.J.: You didn't give up, okay.

Narrator: Everyone's pulse rate quickens as students don helmets and gather ropes gear.

Student: I can't go any higher, I'm scared.

Narrator: The school's adventure room was the brainchild of former P.E. teacher, Bill Monti.

Bill: This is real to the kids. I mean the risk factors are there. They see them and they are afraid of them. However in all situations they are being belayed or safe-guarded by either a rope that's fixed or a rope that is being belayed by a team-member.

Student: Sit parallel, sit parallel to the wall.

Chevoy: You have people like, you know, helping you. They don't just watch you. They help you through every step you're doing. You get along with everybody.

Bill: We have leaders that emerge because they maybe have a little more confidence or maybe they've had success sooner than someone else in the group, and so with that experience they share it with the other members of the team.

Student: Safe, make it safe.

Bill: So we really do teach leadership.

Juan: This is like one of the best P.E. classes I've ever been to. I'm mostly a leader in my class. When someone is not following directions I mostly guide them to the right way.

Ruth: It's more about teamwork and making sure you don't screw and end up falling on something, but mostly the trust is a big one.

Teacher: Alright, understand?

Student: Yeah.

Narrator: Adventure P.E. is catching on in schools across the country. New teachers at New Jersey's Montclair State University are learning how to impart new P.E. skills.

Teacher: This one goes a little bit faster, guys. Take your time, slowly. Very good.

Carolyn: Everyone here ends up learning a little bit about everyone else in a different way than just skill-related athletic stuff like power and agility and quickness.

Teacher: Very slowly.

Carolyn: Because everybody has a chance to put in what they need to do and communicate together as a team.

Student: You can go first. Do you want to go second?

Carolyn: They can learn some of the character education values that you need like integrity and justice and responsibility and all those kinds of things that it's very hard to teach in school.

Student: Ready guys?

Student: Are you ready, Maddie?

Student: Yep.

Student: Step on, step on.

Carolyn: I'll ask them where did they use these skills that you're learning today in life?

Student: And the first thing they said "We can use this in school." And we're like "How?"

Student: They said "Working on projects in order to have- get a good grade on projects everyone has to put equal amount of effort."

Student: And they said if they didn't talk together when they were doing a project, they'd both do the same thing by accident and wouldn't get the job done. So I mean they were able to apply it outside of the gym.

Teacher: You're almost to the bucket.

Narrator: As some schools cut back on P.E. and after-school sports in pursuit of higher test scores, others see the positive effects of exercise on mind and body.

Kira: Let's see if we can help each other balance.

Narrator: In the Bronx, Kira Morton teachers her first graders yoga.

Kira: Fly like a butterfly.

Students: Fly like a butterfly.

Kira: I do yoga with the kids every single day. The kids really respond well to it. I found last year that my kids were very jumpy and it was like the perfect thing to get them settled down.

Sit up nice and tall. Bring your hands on your bell. Breath in. Ommmmmm…

It also helps me. It helps me breathe. It helps me remember that they are 5, 6, 7 years old. We do need to find time for movement.

And drive.

Narrator: In Napa, California, Sharon Campbell attached a wind turbine to a stationary bike allowing her seventh graders to generate electricity while they burn off excess energy.

Sharon: I think every classroom needs the bicycle even if they don't have the energy bank the way we do, because I have youngsters in here that will be working on their project, stand up and go over and peddle for five or six minutes and come and sit down again. And they haven't even thought about making power. They haven't thought about the fact they can't sit still for another minute. They just automatically go and they burn off a little energy.

Joel: Kids spend their time in school sitting down, okay, and that is by far the worst thing you can do for a kid and for learning.

You're going to start turning like this where your arms just flop against your body like that.

Narrator: A former sports psychologist for the San Francisco Giants, Kirsch believes students could benefit from doing a few simple exercises in class.

Joel: These are techniques related to balance, concentration, flexibility, maintaining a positive attitude, all the things that are needed to help the student learn. When kid are working on a written assignment for quite a long period of time, they can just get off and do these off to the side by themselves to wake themselves up, oxygenate their blood and go back to their desk and continue their work. You know, as long as you allow that flexibility in the classroom.

Good job. You guys are pros.

Narrator: Kirsch is planning to open a public school that will place sports and wellness at the center of the curriculum.

Joel: Seventy-five percent of high school students across the country are quote unquote "chronically disengaged". At the same time all the research is showing that kids are totally engaged when they're involved in activities like sports. So what we're looking to do is bring the positive aspects of sport culture into a total learning environment and in an entire school setting.

Narrator: Kirsch's vision is similar to programs at Harrison High School in Mississippi. Here blood pressure readings from the school's championship cheerleading squad are entered into a database which is accessed by math students. Other students learn physics principles that will enhance their sports performance.

Teacher: If you consider a minute ago you went from up there to the floor in a 30th of a second, so your acceleration was a lot faster.

C.J.: Being trustworthy but also trusting other people, solving problems, working in teams, and taking risks are really important skills that kids need to learn somewhere to be successful. What we do in physical education program is more important now than it ever was. It's so great to see these girls come in sort of quiet, a little meek at the beginning of the year, and then to see them jumping off the wall on the zip line.

C.J.: The transformation is amazing.

Narrator: For more information on what works in public education, go to

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Video Credits

Produced, written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Coordinating Producer:

  • Amy Erin Borovoy


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • Brian Cardello
  • Tony Jensen
  • Orlando Video Productions
  • Bob Boccaccio


  • Kris Welch

Original Music:

  • Ed Bogas

Comments (83)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Wanda Schaudel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think the video was really cool. I agree with the theory
of challenging, peer teaching and having higher level thinking skills added to the PE class. However, I think it would be hard to get the money and approval for liability from the administration!

Bunnie Woodruff's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I liked the the idea of the movement and the collaboration of the students working together, however the new ideas would only work if you have the permission from the school or administration to receive money and equipment and liability coverage to be able to incorporate this type of program in our school.

Wanda Schaudel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you Mikey. There are so many ways to teach new, fresh ideas to the kids about teamwork, leadership, and higher level thinking skills! I would LOVE to have a zipline in my gym....I'd have the classroom teachers in ther too!!!! (And probably a Parent Night too!)

Bunnie Woodruff's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree. My elementary students love the competition without knowing that they are increasing their heart rate or exercising.

Ginny Knight's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

While the high school gymnasium was impressive (an indoor ROPES course), we are so fortunate in Cypress-Fairbanks ISD to have 3 outdoor facilities such as this. As a former ROPES facilitator for several years and a current P.E. teacher, we incorporate many activities similar to what was shown in the video into our typical P.E. daily instruction.
I like the idea that the gentleman has about starting a public school with sports and wellness at the center of the curriculum, and his stats that typically 75% of kids are chronically disengaged, but when you add sports and activity, 100% become totally engaged. I agree.

Ginny Knight's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Many of the ROPES activities can be performed in our gyms without having to go out to the courses, which was especially helpful this year, as lost days from Ike kept many schools from being able to use days to attend the outdoor courses. We often use ROPES warm-ups and icebreakers at the beginning of the year, or even the beginning of class to get both the kids' minds and bodies warmed up. I know that many PE teachers in our district are also ROPES facilitators. Although I know that not every PE teacher is interested in being certified, it might not be a bad idea to have an inservice demonstrating ROPES activities that can be done in the gyms, especially as a way to get kids working together cooperatively in August/September. It could also set the tone for when classes do attend the outdoor ROPES facilities.

Ginny Knight's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Yes, that's the key right there....the kids are working together cooperatively for a common goal, having fun, doing what it takes to be successful, and they get the benefit of fitness/increased healthiness and sharp mind functioning...we call it GT PE!

Janie Brooks's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed the teamwork activites that the elementary age students were doing. I will be stealing some of those ideas!

Martha's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The "adventure" gym is awesome!! REally liked the activities where the kids have to work together as a team and as peer teachers.
I also like the idea of the stationary bike in the gym--how neat would that be for kids to utilize as they wait for a turn or if they are "taking a time away"

Deanna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I thought the comment that students are becoming chronically disengaged is so important. As a PE teacher we really need to help find new ways (ROPES etc. ) to engage the physical side of the child as well as the cognitive. I love using the skills that I learned as a Ropes instructor to help get my kids to become invovled in the activity through discussion as well as participation. Getting them motivated to move is sometimes difficult, but I think if I can purposely involve students in the learning process of health and fitness they may feel more safe to try new activities.

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