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Moving Forward: It's Time to Rethink Physical Education

Mark Nichol

Editor / Writer
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When I was in elementary school, physical education classes were unmemorable and uninspired. We played dodgeball, kickball -- the usual suspects. During my secondary school years, PE classes often consisted of alpha males dominating the field with headlong, undisciplined aggression while everyone else tried to participate without getting underfoot.

I was fortunate enough to have one coach who modeled skills for us. I distinctly remember him demonstrating how to hit a volleyball -- but, being somewhat small for my age, I never actually got to touch the ball in play, so his efforts didn't get me into the game.

When I taught elementary school, I primarily stuck with the same old standbys, but I changed the rules to give everyone a fair shot. In kickball, my students drew numbers to determine teams, pitchers, and kicking order. Everyone got a turn, and we played just one inning. In dodgeball, the ball could be rolled but not thrown. I also developed a field hockey-type game using partial milk jugs and a tennis ball, and directed weekly relay races for the fourth-grade and fifth-grade classes with randomly selected teams. (My colleagues, none particularly athletic, were glad to hand responsibility for organizing the relays over to me.)

During summer school one year, my students played soccer with an inflated cloth ball the size of a Mini Cooper, gleefully launching themselves against it to propel it down the field.

Despite my efforts to make PE a positive experience for all kids, however, I knew that it could be much more.

Things haven't changed much since then, but I was encouraged this week when the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports announced the National President's Challenge. When launched in March, the program will encourage children, teachers, and parents to be physically active every day. (The council calls for between thirty and sixty minutes of daily exercise, depending on age).

That's terrific, but making it happen will require some serious effort and creativity. In elementary schools, PE is usually just another recess in which students participate in a handful of the usual competitive games, and secondary school PE is often more of the same. It's difficult enough to inspire physical activity in a sedentary, obesity-ridden society, but it's time to make PE something children clamor to participate in.

What if we were to treat physical education as a core subject? What if we were to develop a PE curriculum that emphasizes fitness, cooperative activities, interdisciplinary events, and health education? What if we were to devote sufficient time, energy, equipment, and funding to developing proactive, well-informed attitudes toward maintaining active lifestyles? What if we were to expand the concept of PE to include yoga, dance, and martial arts throughout the country, not just in a relative handful of schools and school districts?

The benefits of increased physical activity are manifest: Fit, healthy students behave and learn better. Children who balance competitive sports with activities that involve cooperation, as well as efforts to achieve personal goals (basically, doing better than you did last time) are likely to have healthier attitudes about both competition and cooperation, as well as about valuing self-improvement over the goal of outperforming others.

With a will, and with innovative thinking, we can revolutionize a school subject that's largely stuck in the previous century, and we can make participation in athletics appealing to everyone, not only those who make the team.

Here are some ideas to get you out of the starting blocks:

Does your school provide insufficient time or space for PE? Try integrating physical activity into other school subjects:

  • Studying the population cycles of animals? Teach your students Project Wild's Oh Deer! (scroll down to click on the activity PDF on this Web page) or other games that simulate animal behavior and facts.
  • Teaching your class about local, state, or U.S. history, or about other cultures? Introduce them to traditional games and sports from early American history and from around the world. (This site sells period toys and games but can also be used as an information resource.)
  • Looking for kinetic activities for science class? Introduce your students to the principles of physics pertaining to their favorite sports.
  • Searching for ways to combine PE with math? Start here.

Online resources that can help you get going on a more dynamic PE program abound. Here's a sampling of media, programs, and organizations devoted to promoting physical fitness for children:

Check out content about health and fitness:

What have you done to promote physical fitness in your classes or school? What is your school doing to bring fitness literacy to students? Please share your thoughts and ideas.

Comments (15)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Tina's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach high school Physical Education and I can say at least at that level that things have changed. The sophomores in our district have to design their own fitness program, and have units on dance, aerobics and rollerblading. At the junior and senior levels students have a choice of their activity. They can choose weightlifting, dance, team sports, individual sports, adventure challenge, officiating, and sports medicine. We try to put emphasis on fitness and lifelong sports.

Katie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach elementary Physical Education and I also can say things have changed. Our school is not permitted to even play dodge ball. The reason is because it creates low self-esteem towards certain students who don't have the athletic ability or it promotes students to go after somewhat they don't like. We also don't play kickball anymore. It is too much standing around. Physical Education is supposed to demonstrate some sort of physical fitness, and make students fit; well they are not getting any exercise standing in a field waiting for a ball.

Our program focuses on fitness and playing fun interactive games incorporating locomotor and non-locomotor movements. We still teach the students' basics skills involved sports but then we practice these skills in fun game situations where every student is involved and doesn't feel left out.

Mary Ann's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I did my undergraduate work in Physical Education in the late 70's. I wasn't able to find a Physical Education teaching position right away, so I taught Special Education for a number of years. The last seven years I have been teaching Physical Education in a Junior High School. And I would agree, things have changed to life long fitness instead of sports based programs. In my school, we have the best of both worlds. Through the course of the school year, we teach team sports but the emphasis is on fitness. We also teach individual sports and dance. Every week each teacher has a day assigned where we take our classes into a fitness center and another day into our spin room. We have fitness testing and educated students on health related fitness.

Tamara's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Katie,
I agree with you that dodgeball should not be played in physical education classes and I think most schools are not allowing it to be played because of the fact that students pick on kids who are the least athletic and these are the kids we want to be active. If we are creating a negative classroom environment then it will turn kids off of being physically active because they don't enjoy it. We have to find ways to motivate them so they will incorporate physical activity into their life.

However, there are games such as guard the castle and moving target that is just like dodgeball incorporating the same skills but not using humans as targets.

I agree that during kickball to many kids are standing, however have you played ultimate kickball. Their is no standing everyone is moving. You have a hullahoop with 15 balls. There are no outs. The offense kicks three times (everyone). The defense pitches the ball one right after the other, students run the bases. When last kicker is called the defense has to get all the balls in the hoop and tries to get as many offensive players off the base before they reach home base. The lowest score wins.

What I am saying is that there are creative ways to incorporate fitness and games that will not eliminate students and engage kids in active learning.

Susan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you regarding Dodge Ball, in fact there are many facets of PE that I feel still instill a lack of self esteem for some students. SQUARE DANCING!!!! WHY in the middle school years when children are awkward and hormonal why you would put children in the position of having to find a dance partner or hear the groan of an unhappy partner if one is picked.
I had a conversation with my semi-athletic 14 yr old, he hates PE for these reason. The students who excel in the particular sport they are playing tend to dominate.
I thought it would be great to change PE so that students actually have the opportunity to learn a particular sport they have interest in they could make a first and second choice and then that be the sport they learn for an entire semester. This would also help to group students who have similar interest or to help students who want to participate in a school sport to have more time to devote to that sport.
Revamping the PE curriculum would give students the opportunity to have say in what they are learning and how they are getting their exercise. In addition in the high school levels they could offer programs to help students certify to teach a physical fitness program or life guard for example. This truly would make PE worthwhile and memorable.

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