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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Moving Forward: It's Time to Rethink Physical Education

Mark Nichol

Editor / Writer

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 Edutopia.org 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.

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