Gym Class. For most of us, that’s a “been there, done that” sort of memory from our school days. For some, “gym class” was a highlight—a much-needed break from the normal routine of note-taking and tests, a chance to run out some energy and do what they loved for school credit. For others it was dreaded—changing into uniforms in sweaty locker rooms, attention of peers on poor athletic skills. Students of all ages have a mix of feelings about what we know as physical education.
Why take the time during school days for physical education? The U.S. Surgeon General says that “regular physical activity is one of the most important ways to maintain and improve one’s physical health, mental health, and overall well-being.”
The California Board of Education continues,
High-quality physical education instruction contributes to good health, [and] develops fundamental and advanced motor skills . . . Students learn the health-related benefits of regular physical activity and the skills to adopt a physically active, healthy lifestyle. . . . With high-quality physical education instruction, students become confident, independent, self-controlled, and resilient; develop positive social skills; set and strive for personal, achievable goals; learn to assume leadership; cooperate with others; accept responsibility for their own behavior; and ultimately, improve their academic performance.
With this perspective, indicative of the understanding of most U.S. schools, physical education is aimed at creating a more holistic approach to students’ public education experience. In this light, physical education seizes opportunities to teach not just physical skills but valuable life skills.
Although gym classes were once mostly about sports competition and/or physical fitness, shifts over the last few decades have developed the programs to be more about developing healthy, active lifestyles. In addition to physical activities, many physical education programs incorporate health and nutrition lessons. These lessons could include healthy hygiene practices, sexual education, nutrition and healthy eating/exercise habits, bullying and self-esteem, and stress/anger management.
The need for physical education has become increasingly critical in light of the high obesity rates—and general inactivity—of American young people. Although the CDC reports a significant drop in pre-school obesity over the last decade, the overall obesity rate of children age 2-18 has not changed since 2003 and remains at a high 17%. Over the last three decades, the number of obese children age 2-5 or age 12-19 has more than doubled, and for children age 6-11, it has more than tripled (Kelso). “At the moment, it looks like we’re losing the fight against inactivity and obesity in our young people. We are raising the most sedentary and unhealthy generation in American history: Its members may have the dubious distinction of being the first generation not to outlive their parents” (Kelso).
Many hope that high-quality physical education programs in American schools will help address this dangerous trend, both by providing physical activity for students and by instilling the value of healthy activity. Physical education teacher, Charlotte Kelso, says that her classes are all about motion: “We’re getting students up off the couch and emphasizing lifelong fitness activities . . . The ‘lifelong’ part of this approach is the key . . . I want my students to take away from my instruction the love of activity and develop the discipline to live a healthy long life.” Time will tell if the emphasis of teachers such as Kelso across the nation will have a lasting noticeable effect.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
What was your experience like of physical education? Was it a positive or negative one? How did it contribute to your development?
Do you think that the list of developmental and social goals given by the California Board of Education is appropriate or too lofty for physical education in schools? How do you think physical education instructors can go about instilling these values and skills in their students?
Do you think that physical education in the public schools is a good answer to the prevalence of childhood obesity in America? What else is necessary to halt—and reverse—this growing trend?
Physical education programs have changed significantly since most of us were in elementary, middle, or high school. The shift has moved the emphasis from competition and fitness tests to development of appropriate physical skills, encouraging healthy, active lifestyles, and developing personal, social, and team-work skills necessary for life.
Physical activity and “sport” can be an excellent opportunity to teach life skills to children and teens. It can also help them to properly explore and become comfortable with their sometimes awkwardly changing bodies during adolescence and promote a healthy attitude toward their bodies.
The rate of childhood obesity (and related physical diseases) in American children and teens is alarming. The efforts of many physical education programs may help to encourage healthy behavior. But this will likely have limited results without the attention of parents and society at large on the issue.