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.
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

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

Get Video
Embed Code Embed Help

You are welcome to embed this video, download it for personal use, or use it in a presentation for a conference, class, workshop, or free online course, so long as a prominent credit or link back to Edutopia is included. If you'd like more detailed information about Edutopia's allowed usages, please see the Licenses section of our Terms of Use.


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 comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Sharyl Seyler's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I thought that giving the kids the option of burning energy in the classroom by riding the bike was a great idea. They don't have to sit the whole time and they are generating electricity while they are doing it.

tanya skarpa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The human knot is a great activity. We have done it in ROPES, but not in P.E. before. I would like to have our kids try it, 3rd, 4th and 5th grades for sure, but not sure if the younger kids could do it. Another way we have done it is to hold scarves instead of hands. This makes it a little easier for them.

Paul Bygness's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The ROPES activities are great for PE classes. We use them each year to get the students to cooperate and team build at the start of the school year. It is a great way for all students to get to know each other better in their new class groups.

voucher codes's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love the idea of having the students exercise in the classroom (activity breaks) inserted in between units of lessons. Students really only have so much time that they can stay focused on any one thing before checking out

Siman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There's more to be learned about physical activity than cardio fitness....for example stretching is important but it doesn't cause movement...There's a need to learn to balance and leap off the wall etc.. All the components of the physical use of our bodies is important and teachers need to learn how to teach it in exciting new ways like this...

Kris's picture

its important we make exercise enjoyable for those who arent sporty, so i like the ideas in the video
Personal Trainer

Anonymous's picture

I just love (not really) how my kids no longer value play because it is not exercise. No better way to get kids to stay on the couch!
And Fitness Phil; we see the same benefits from kids who are physically active. And we see that kids who are forced into fitness activities rather than just enjoyable physical activity have what you may call negative or harmful brain chemistry issues. Yes fit kids have good brain chemistry but so do unfit kids that are physically active.
The kids that are not fit and are in a fitness based program (not a physical activity based program) experience a negative brain chemistry imbalance that negatively affects behavior and learning. In fact when it comes to learning as well as quality of life, doing the physical activities you enjoy on a daily basis is more important than being fit. Fitness, Physical Activity and Play are three very different things that all have their place and are all important at some level. Physical education should be about Physical activity and learning not fitness or play.

Good job in the video all but the fitness personal training stuff.

Developmental Neurologist

Anonymous's picture

I would not call this new PE as we have been doing these things for many years. But once the video got past the same old technology (heart monitors and pocket PC's only used to make the teachers job easier, not to teach!) and even older fitness based 1950's PE I thought the video was really good.

The technology applications that I saw were not ways that I would like to see my tax dollars spent. After all we are teachers and we should be educating individually not personal training (personal training for now educating for life). I am not sure from the video that the kids are learning from the heart monitors. It looks like they were just keeping assessment data. After all how much can my child learn from a heart rate monitor? If you move your heart beats faster (can do that without the monitor). There is a target range that you should try to be in. (Can teach that without it as well). Heart rate can change over long periods of time with exercise as you improve cardio capacity. (Don't need monitors for that either). What did spending all of that money teach the kids that could not have been taught otherwise? Maybe there is something but I can't see it.

The Pocket PC is even worse what did the kids learn from the pocket PC? Here is a great tool that can be used in stations as a question and response center or as a video demonstration tool, or as a learning assessment tool and many, many other things where kids learn using the pocket PC yet it was just used as a data collection device just like the old clip board. If we spend $5000 of my tax money I want to see $5000 of improved learning!

I would be very interested to see if the program actually works. Are the kids more physically active outside of school and after they graduate even into adulthood? They seem to have the enjoyment focus but I am not sure about the self-efficacy (learning and confidence in their skill agility to produce a desired effect) that is required to impact lifelong change in physical activity habits.

PE as a profession needs to decide what they are going to hang their hat on. Since the 50's (Eisenhower) it has been fitness and kids kept getting less fit ever since. PE should have been cut. If PE is going to be about increasing physical activity habits and physical activity for a lifetime then we should be assessing it and if we do not improve those things then we should be cut. After all you can get kids as fit as you want to in PE (which we all know in the real world you cannot) but if they are not being active outside of school that fitness level will soon fade away once they hit the couch and PE class is no longer there.

Good focus on Enjoyment and opportunities for adventure! I loved the connection between pe activities and physics classes and so on! Keep that up; we often forget that we are academic! As teachers it is our job to impact academic learning and the life lessons should be found in every lesson not just adventure lessons designed to teach them alone.

Deanna's picture

This is fantastic! I think what many people, including anonymous, forget is that Physical Education is not a gym where it is our job to get kids into great shape. That is not possible with the amount of time we see students. We are teaching students how to be physically active for a lifetime; Introducing students to a variety of activities that they can do once they are out of school. While we want to be active in our classes and get them up and moving and we do a variety of cardio activities, it is also important to teach the other aspects of physical activity such as recreational activities that may turn students on to being active adults. We also teach current trends in technology so students have the tools needed to stay active in their world. We are teaching for the future not just for today!

Gary Street's picture

This was an amazing video. Fitness for life is what PE needs to be focused on. Where I teach I always get questions like, when are you going to do kickball in PE. I always answer with, "when was the last time you played kickball." They usually say, "back when I was in elementary school;" exactly. Why do things in PE that won't help the kids outside of school? I am into activities that can be used outside the school. Great video!

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.