Gone are the days where gym class consisted of five minutes of lackluster calisthenics followed by a half-hearted game of dodge ball. Physical Education, or PE, in schools today is about getting kids’ heart rates up, teaching them about nutrition and the benefits of exercise. According to current public health guidelines, physical activity calls for children to accumulate 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily. And with approximately 25 million kids in this country considered obese, why would schools want to eliminate physical education from their programs?
For starters, schools are under budgetary constraints and immense pressure to improve standardized test scores. So schools have been questioning the value of physical education. They are trimming the "fat", which for them may be anything that does not advance children in academic subjects. PE, arts programs and recess seem to suffer the hardest blows. Stewart Trost, Ph.D. and Associate Professor for the Departments of Nutrition and Exercise Science at Oregon State University, says, "The belief that time for Physical Education compromises academic performance is simply not supported by the research on this topic. If anything, the evidence suggests that regular physical activity breaks and physical education can promote better classroom learning by keeping kids more on task and improving concentration.”
Active Living Research is a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which supports research to examine how environments and policies influence active living for children. According to their research, sacrificing physical education for classroom time does not improve academic performance. On the contrary, students whose time in school-based physical activity was increased maintained or improved their grades. And their scores on standardized achievement tests also improved, even though they received less classroom instructional time than students in control groups. Trost explains that physical education not only provides much needed physical activity that can help a child in the short-term, it can also teach students the behavioral and movement skills that will help them be physically active later in life.
Experts say if you want to raise truly well-balanced kids, physical education needs to be a part of their daily lives. And if the school isn’t providing an opportunity for physical activity, parents should feel empowered to fight for it.
How can you be an effective advocate for keeping PE in your child’s school? Kurt Suhr, Principal of Newport Heights Elementary School, Newport Beach, CA encourages concerned parents to speak with their child’s teacher first. Suhr says that California has a law that mandates schools provide a minimum of 200 minutes of PE every ten school days – essentially the teachers have to take the kids out twice a week. Still not very much. But not all states even have PE mandates. Parents should ask the child’s teacher how much physical education time the children are receiving weekly. And if parents aren’t satisfied with the answer, they should contact the principal. If still no action is taken to make changes, parents should contact the school district and principal’s supervisor.
Suhr says, “One thing to remember is that advocating for your child does not mean you are the difficult or angry parent”; it just means you have a vested interest in making sure your child is getting the exercise he needs. One parent in Suhr’s school heard of a PE program out of Texas and advocated for it to be implemented at Newport Heights. She approached the topic in a positive way and brought the information to meetings. The school piloted the program and eventually integrated it into the curriculum. Says Suhr, “You can advocate in a positive way to make a positive change.”
Bottom line? Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the PE program in your child’s school. And while you’re waiting for the answers, bike with your kids to the grocery store, instead of driving. Park far away from the mall entrance – on purpose. After all, we only get one body in this lifetime. Teach your child to take care of it.