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PE Is Not an Extracurricular

“Let’s Move” is the name of Michelle Obama’s initiative to reduce childhood obesity in a generation.  I hope everybody gets on board with this one.

I’m excited that it’s called “Let’s Move” and not “Let’s Diet.”  “It’s not about inches and pounds,” she says.  “It’s not about how our kids look.  It’s about how they feel.” 

KidPlaying1  Nationwide only 4% of elementary kids have physical education daily.  Only 8% of middle schoolers and 2% of high schoolers do according to news reports. These are alarming percentages, but the key word is “daily.”  Many more schools have it a couple of times a week.  But if your school does, you might take a look at how much actual activity takes place in those 20-40 minutes.  Are kids actively engaged for the period, or are they watching, waiting, or sitting while other kids get their turn (or the teacher gets organized)?  PE classes can be structured to maximize activity, but PE teachers have to work at it and understand the expectations.  Wander into any high school PE class and count how many kids are sitting on the bleachers because they didn’t bring their clothes or sneakers or they have some kind of written excuse.  And if PE is a Pass/Fail course, take a look at the minimum effort it takes to pass.

Part of the problem is that the typical physical education curriculum hasn’t changed to meet the needs of today’s kids.  Instead of focusing on fitness or lifetime sports, many physical education classes still feature soccer in the fall, basketball/volleyball in the winter, and softball/baseball in the spring.  For most people, these are not lifetime sports you actually participate in, but lifetime sports you watch from your Lazy-Boy in HD.  Middle and high schools need to focus on fitness, and while they’re at it, look at the differences in activities favored by boys and girls. 

Arnie Duncan this week encouraged schools in tight budget times not to cut back on “extracurriculars” like PE.  That’s another part of the problem.  If PE is seen as an “extracurricular” instead of part of whole student instruction, how important can it be?

Not all physical activity needs to be a part of the curriculum, of course.  Elementary schools need to include recess as part of every day’s schedule.  Kids should come dressed to go outside even when it’s cold, and teachers can have a clean supply of extra gloves, hats, and even boots for kids who don’t have them (thank you, Parents’ Association ladies).  And we need to stop the practice of not letting kids go to recess as a form of punishment. 

A couple of days ago I talked about a Kaiser Foundation survey that indicated that adolescents spent over 7 hours outside of school with media (computers, smart phones, etc.)  Some may be wearing earbuds while they’re kicking a soccer ball or shooting hoops, but I’m thinking that would be the exception.  Daily physical activity is not a part of lots of kids’ lives.

So go for it, Michelle. It’s not going to be easy to change attitudes and behaviors.  But it wouldn’t cost trillions of dollars for schools to plan their schedules so kids have recess or to take a hard look at what happens in physical education.   Let’s move, people!



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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.