As the amount of physical activity children get in and out of school has declined in recent years, youngsters have become more overweight and less fit. To help reverse that trend, some fitness experts say, physical education classes should be revamped so there is less emphasis on team sports and more on lifelong fitness activities. Included: Descriptions of physical education programs that stress fitness, health awareness, and lifelong exercise habits.
Though some adults thrived on the competition in their school physical education classes, others remember the experience as humiliating, with the operative word being last -- picked last for a team or coming in last in the mile run.
For too long, some fitness experts say, physical education has not lived up to its name: Traditional phys-ed classes provide too little activity to too few students, offer little or no guidance for maintaining a healthful lifestyle, and can make less athletic children feel inadequate, which can further turn them off to exercise.
Enter a new generation of phys ed, with programs that stress lifelong fitness activities, such as walking, biking, in-line skating, and tennis; educate students about healthful diets; and teach students how to monitor their heart rates and pulses.
To accommodate those new programs, some school districts have renovated their gymnasiums to look like fitness centers and revamped their curriculums to emphasize fitness over competition. Several national organizations also are promoting changes to phys-ed curriculums and working with school systems that want to offer new activities.
"I don't believe any subject area has made as many changes to educate children in the 21st century as phys ed," says Philip Lawler, the physical education coordinator for the Naperville (Ill.) Community Unit School District 203.
Phys-ed curriculum changes have been prompted in part by reports that the nation's children weigh more and are less active than ever before. And with many school systems sacrificing phys-ed time to squeeze in more classroom time, students are getting even less exercise.
Some health experts say that needs to change. According to the National Survey for Sport and Physical Education's Shape of the Nation report released in 1997, nearly half the nation's youths between the ages of 12 and 21 and more than one-third of high school students did not participate in vigorous physical activity on a regular basis. Fewer than one in four children got 20 minutes of vigorous activity every day, and one in four children did not attend any physical education class.
Some school districts have cut phys-ed teachers from some school staffs. In California, classroom teachers provide phys-ed instruction in more than 90 percent of the elementary schools, according to SPARK (Sports, Play and Active Recreation for Kids), a nonprofit elementary physical education and staff development program affiliated with the San Diego State University Foundation.
"Fundamentally, phys ed has been undervalued for more than 25 years, and we're starting to see the results of that," says Anne Flannery, executive director of P.E.4Life, a not-for-profit organization that promotes expanding and revamping PE programs. "We don't advocate one curriculum over another; we're trying to be advocates for daily, quality physical education."
By a quality program, P.E.4Life means one centered around activities that students can do throughout their lives, Flannery says. "It should be about introducing them to something they like and having them stick with it." At the same time, P.E.4Life does not think team sports should be completely eliminated from phys-ed curriculums. "There still are lessons learned from games; it's still important to have that exposure to sports."
Paula Kun, spokesperson for the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, a nonprofit professional organization for phys-ed teachers and professors, agrees that PE curriculums have to change. "We want a phys-ed class to be a place where students try a whole variety of activities and find something they want to do their entire lives," Kun explains.
According to Kun, the traditional dodge ball game does not belong in a quality phys-ed program mainly because students are eliminated, so not everyone is active during the game.
SPARK staff members visit schools and evaluate their phys-ed curriculum for a fee, as well as provide curriculum and equipment. Many of the schools SPARK works with do not have the money for exercise equipment, so SPARK staff members suggest activities that don't require expensive equipment and curriculum modifications so more students can participate.
Fifth graders, for example, might prepare to play softball by working in pairs to field ground balls, so they can give each other feedback on their fielding technique. Then they can play a modified softball game, in which all the fielders have to relay the ball before it can be thrown home.
For a new spin on running laps, students can be assigned to see how many playing cards they can collect from a teacher while running for ten minutes. While they are cooling down, students can do a math problem using the numbers on the cards they collected, Rosengard explains.
An example of such a phys-ed program is at Madison Junior High School in Naperville, Illinois. Madison's gym now has a 40-station fitness center, with treadmills, stationary bicycles, heart-rate monitors, and a climbing wall. Students wear T-shirts that say "I'm Getting Fit for Life at Madison Health Club." The program emphasizes personal improvement instead of who can run the fastest mile; students run 12 minutes every week, and the teacher notes whether they increase their distances.
"We are meeting the needs of every child who walks through the door," says Phil Lawler, a physical education teacher and the school's system phys-ed coordinator. "We don't want to make it so painful that we turn them off. The focus is on a healthy norm; what is good for their age, height, and weight." Students also play some games in phys-ed class and learn about eating healthfully and avoiding health risks.
Lawler, at least, thinks the efforts in the gym are paying off in the classroom as well. Naperville's eighth graders made national news in April when they scored first in the world on the science portion of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study.
"We [posted high scores] while offering quality, daily physical education," Lawler tells Education World. "I think they work hand in hand; [phys ed] was a contributing factor." Illinois is the only state that mandates daily physical education for students in sixth through 12th grades.
Madison began its shift to a fitness-based phys-ed program about ten years ago, when staff began reading articles about the increase in the number of obese children. "We've been forgetting that kids are not living in the same world as we did growing up," says Lawler, noting the changes in lifestyle and increase in technology that keep kids inside. "They have multiple TVs, computers, and fast-food diets."
Those students who take phys-ed twice in a six-day class cycle usually spend one day in the fitness center, Carey explains. At the middle schools without a fitness center, phys-ed teachers introduce students to lifetime activities, such as racquetball, badminton, and volleyball.
Equipment including treadmills and stationary bikes, much of it donated by local fitness centers and sports rehabilitation facilities, also was added to the weight room at the high school.
"We hoped to make it more user-friendly," by having more than just weights, Carey tells Education World. "Traditionally, fitness centers in high schools tend to be geared more toward male-dominated sports, such as football." During the day the center is open to phys-ed classes; after school, staff and students are able to use it.
Students at both the high school and the middle school play some sports in gym classes, but high school students learn to play tennis, golf, and croquet as well. And included in the plans for a high school renovation project is construction of a 5,000-square-foot wellness center. "We hope to have a state-of-the-art center," Carey says.
Charles Green, director of middle and secondary schools for Davis County Schools, says that though the system currently has a traditional phys-ed program, staff members think it is time for a change. "We feel this is the way to go, with the emphasis on children's and young adolescents' health and increasing their cardiovascular knowledge," Green explains. School officials are talking with administrators at the local hospital, Owensboro Mercy Health Systems, to determine whether the hospital will help fund the change to a fitness program, he adds.
Federal funds now are available as well to pump up phys-ed programs. This month, the U.S. Department of Education released the guidelines for school systems applying for funds through the Physical Education for Progress Grant Program. The $5 million program provides grants so school systems can start, expand, or improve their phys-ed programs.
P.E.4Life's Flannery says her organization has mobilized support for the program and advocates that a review of physical education standards be part of overall national education reform efforts. "This is not just an education issue," adds Flannery of children's physical fitness. "This is a health, military readiness, and competitive workforce issue. We're on a mission."