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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.

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

Jerry, Walden University's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that Physical Education is changing more to the life-long physical fitness track. Some schools would like to try to implement the new technology, but economic impacts on the school make it difficult to do what we would like to as Physical Educators. The students do not want to play the old games anymore, the students mindset is changing with the ever changing world of technology. They want the new gadgets, and they want to see the new games. I would love to give all the kids heart monitors, pedometers, have spin classes, and lift weights. We implement many activities with the equipment we have, but until Physical Education starts getting more funding it will restrict what we as educators would like to do with the students.

Stephanie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would like to stand up and probably make some enemies in saying that dodge ball should be allowed!
As an 8th and 9th grade physical education teacher I feel very strongly in knowing my content area. Dodge ball, or most variations of dodge ball games can be adapted to make the focus on knocking cones down, getting their team back in, or making a basket. All the while the students are running and getting their heart rate up, aiming their throws, gaining hand-eye coordination by practicing their catching, practicing agility by dodging, multi-tasking, paying attention, and working cooperatively. I believe that whether you are a fan of the game or not, one can't deny that it is one of the best all-around activities one can physically engage in.
Dodge ball isn't a playground ball that leaves the imprint of itself on your leg anymore, most play with gator skin nerf balls. These balls do not hurt, they may startle one, but they don't hurt. Look at the fitness benefits from this game.
Dodge ball doesn't have to always have a winner; if the game is getting one-sided a good teacher will blow the whistle and yell "jail break" or something to that effect.

I feel very strongly that life is a competition. I have to apply to college, I have to apply for jobs, and I vote people into office - there is a winner and a loser. To teach children that everybody wins, that nobody loses, or what counts is your effort is false! Children have to learn how to be let down; they need to learn that life isn't always fair, and that no matter how hard you try sometimes you still don't win. One must applaud their efforts and "cheer" them on, and congratulate them when they do win...but to teach a false aspect of life is wrong. It would be more difficult to appreciate the sun if there were no clouds?

I feel the more knowledge one has, the more flexible you can be and the more you know to adapt. You give less effort for the same result. Dodge ball - with the right knowledge behind it, is one of the most effective games in our profession. Life is about winning and losing and the effort you put in!

Pete's picture

I am currently a PE techer at a middle school as well as at a 1st grade building. I am currently struggling to erase the stereotypes many previous generations have created. Until we can escape the "roll out the ball," mentality we will not receive the respect/funding needed. I have been taking steps to change the old mentality but it is hard when you are going against the flow of what fellow teachers and administrators grew up with.

Patrick Donnelly's picture

I agree the PE curriculum of rolling out the ball is dead and buried. There are too many opportunities for students to learn about physical education to narrow our curriculum to competition. Emphasizing lifelong fitness as a tool to becoming a health, well-rounded contributing member of society is essential to begin early on. I teach in an elementary school setting and the body types of students in Kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade is beyond staggering.

Derek Williams's picture

We are currently in the middle of trying to revamp and modernize our whole physical education curriculum. I agree that the days of just rolling a ball out and letting the students play are over. We are trying to implement new activities and sports into our curriculum that stress all components of physical fitness for each student in the classroom. It's great to come up with new ideas for the students to get excited about and basically dream up any new course that would seem new and fun for the kids. The biggest problem with this is funding. I teach at a school where we don't have the great luxaries of rockclimbing walls and places to kayak and do all of this great adventure-type learning. We just recently received a grant to use "fitness grams" in the classroom and they are working great! We weigh each student at the beginning of the 6 week grading period and track their progress throughout the course of the 6 weeks on a handheld computer device. If anyone would like information on this I would gladly email it to you!

A.hernandez's picture
Elementary PE

Out with the old physical education and in with the new. A few years ago I acquired a new physical education position from an older gentleman that had an old school system in place, which constantly used stations and focused only on team sports. The athletes of the school mostly ruled the previous program. For example, the students were not familiar to any structured warm-up activities, stretching or had learned any of the names of the muscles being targeted. However, after I began working at the school, I made various changes to the program that took a year or two for the students to get accustomed to.
The changes I made included introducing team building and lifetime skills to students that they will be able to utilize throughout their lifetime. I also provided the children with after school activities and got the community involved in 5K fun runs. These additions really improved my program as well as, benefited the children and community. I have also included a few math and language arts activities that in cooperate physical activity with learning that students really enjoy. However, the intertwining of classroom work with fun movement activities can be challenging, nerveless I am up to the challenge. I believe these types of alterations are what physical education classes need and it is an educator's responsibility to provide and ensure successful learning.

Liz's picture
K5 PE teacher

Things have changed. It is happening. I am new in my school and am working to change the culture towards PE. It will take a couple years.

Brenda Winowiecki's picture
Brenda Winowiecki
Elementary P.E. teacher from Michigan

What are you doing to change the culture? We are a Visible Thinking School, and Cultures of Thinking are very much a part of our curriculum. I would be interested in hearing what you are doing.

Tim Murray's picture

I agree that rolling the ball out mentality is dying out. I teach K-5 Physical Education and our focus is on fitness, nutrition, activities that you can participate through your life, and providing them with the knowledge to become fit for life. Yes we still teach team sports but our main focus teaching our students about the importance of being a fit and active individual. I think that it is so important that we improve the knowledge of our students in new wave of Physical Education, which is teaching students how to become fit for life. It is so great to hear that you are teaching your students about the different body types. I do that in my school also and the students love it. I can not believe that there are Physical Education teachers out their that still have the roll the ball mentality. I think that they are just lazy and they need to open their eyes and change their ways.

waldenstudent13's picture

I believe that dodgeball is a beneficial activity as it truly addresses more individual skills than other activities such as kickball. The kids are typically all sweating during the game and it works on throwing, catching, chasing, fleeing, and dodging. I don't, however, agree with it being a required activity. I will offer dodgeball a few times a year as a reward but will always offer a second choice activity. I also highly recommend the SPARK curriculum for any PE teachers out there K-8. It addresses the concerns posted in this blog by offering unique ideas to teach motor skills to all students.

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