This article is also in audio form! Chalk Talk brought to life the stories and insights from the teachers and students featured in the article.

Physical Education Is Not For Everyone. Wait, What?

A few weeks ago, my colleague Sam Breslin published a two-part article on the importance of Physical Education. Part 1 broke down the physical health benefits (see here), and Part 2 illustrated the social and emotional benefits (see here)

While the consensus from teachers, coaches, and parents was a big thumbs up, it was not all ‘hooray for fitness.’ 

It was met, like most discussions surrounding Physical Education, with classic objections that fit the common themes of:

1) Not For Everyone, 2) Not Solving Our Societal Problems 3) New Approaches Upending Traditional Proven Strategies.

1) Physical Education is not for everyone. We are unnecessarily forcing students to sweat, be embarrassed by their athletic ability, and creating negative associations to physical activity. 

2) Well (sigh), the goal of Physical Education is to decrease the alarming obesity rates, and we are not getting any better at that. A little physical activity sprinkled into the day is not going to change how they eat or what they do in their own time, so what is the point? 

3) Physical Education’s ‘game-based approach’ at least teaches skills like teamwork and problem-solving. The ‘new wave’ of fitness education is trying to eliminate parts of Physical Education that still have value. 

Core Subject Consideration

These three points, while alarmingly negative, do highlight something telling about how we view Physical Education as a society: PE is not considered a core subject. 

What if we did consider PE to be a core subject? Subjects like Math, Science, and English Language Arts are all ingrained into our current curriculum and do not have to defend themselves regarding their legitimacy. 

Let’s use English Language Arts to break down the frequent attacks that fit the three themes outlined:

1) English Language Arts is not for everyone. We are unnecessarily forcing students to read, be embarrassed by their writing abilities, and creating negative associations with literature. 

2) Well (sigh), the goal of English Language Arts is to help students read and critically breakdown rich text and bodies of writing. Kids are only reading tweets, text messages, and short work any more, so what is even the point? 

3) The classic texts have and always will be the best way students can learn English Language Arts. The new wave of online and interactive literature is trying to eliminate parts of ELA that still have value. 

Did you have the same reaction to the ELA objections as you did to the Physical Education objections? Why or why not? 

I want to make the case that if we look at Physical Education as a core subject and as valuable as ELA or any other subject area, then we should react the same when we start to hear the common criticisms hurled at Physical Education. 

1) Not For Everyone 

In ELA, we can all remember a book assignment that we had very little interest in completing. Only after reading and writing, we then had to get up in front of the class and read what we wrote. I, for one, turned a bright shade of red, started sweating, and had the occasional stumble and stutter over my words. 

All the elements of this described exercise made me feel awkward, uncomfortable, and somewhat despise English class. What did my teacher do? She provided opportunities for feedback, helped me grow, and get more comfortable. She did this all while showing me the applications reading and writing would have later in life. At that moment, I felt while “English was not for me,” it was giving me skills that I could apply in life.

The same breakdown applies to Physical Education. Students will have moments where they have no interest in being tasked to do something like the squat. Only after learning to squat will they have a class assignment where the squat is part of a larger workout. For some, this will turn students into a bright shade of red, they will start sweating, and some will struggle at times through the workout. 

Sound familiar to my English class? Yet, we avoid the physical activity option. If we shift our mindset to that of the core subject, we can give students opportunities for feedback, scaling options to get more comfortable and to show the application these exercises will have later in life. 

Sound too good to be true? Check out Molly Collin’s strategies to making PE For Everyone (Motivating Students In PE) 

2) Not Solving Our Societal Problems

While we use ELA class as an opportunity to promote good writing and reading habits, we do not lament the class or teacher when students then go watch TV, text in broken english and do not apply everything their teacher taught them. We often chalk up a lot of those things to society. 

However, Physical Education in recent years has borne the burden of solving the obesity crisis in our country. Are students still overweight? Well, that one is on the failure of PE. 

We see a student watch TV, eat junk food (while texting), and not apply everything from Physical Education class. Then, we question the Physical Education class and teacher. How did they not solve the obesity crisis? 

In any core subject, our goal is to help students develop the skills and knowledge to make the best decisions they can outside of the classroom. While society and outside factors might make that harder at times, a proper Physical Education class has started to steer students towards healthier choices. 

Any core subject should prepare students for life long success, what an opportunity we have in Physical Education. 

3) New Approaches Upending Traditional Proven Strategies 

Don’t get rid of Shakespeare or Volleyball! I agree. English does not have to abandon the classics, and neither does Physical Education. There is merit to the games and sports that once were the staples of Physical Education. 

There is no question that sports and games can promote teamwork, communication, and problem-solving. However, Physical Education, like other subjects, must adapt and set students up for success in the society and life we are living in. 

The majority of young adults do not continue playing sports after high school. Actually, in a recent study, less than 25% of adults reported still playing sports into their adult lives. 

So while we can promote sports as a great way to build life skills, we also need to foster fitness skills that adults can use throughout their daily lives to stay healthy. This is where, in recent years, we identified fitness education as a part of the solution. 

The majority of adults look to local gyms, running, or other fitness-based approaches to staying healthy long term. So part of Physical Education should be dedicated to helping this group succeed after sports come to an end. 

And the best part is that there are still lots of opportunities in fitness education to incorporate teamwork, communication, and problem-solving. 

The Canton Example

And let me just be abundantly clear, the path to successful Physical Education does not lie in a ‘holier than though’ approach. Schools succeeding in Physical Education have ingrained the subject into its core offerings and provided diverse options of fitness, health, wellness, and sport in their Physical Education curriculum. They are open to developing the subject because they see it as a core subject. 

One great example of a school that has diverse options offered in Physical Education is at Canton High School in Massachusetts. Every student is required to go through the sophomore Personal Wellness Class; with the goal, they are introduced to foundational movements that they can apply throughout the rest of their life. (Read More About The Class Structure Here) 

From there, students are given different options, with the baseline understanding that the goal of all Physical Education is to both promote and highlight different ways students can be physically and mentally healthy. 

One student, Jenna Larson, in a recent essay contest from Canton High School wrote the following:

“I love sweating. Well, no, I don’t really. Let me rephrase: I love knowing I just worked so hard on something that my shirt is a completely different color. If I’m going to put myself through the misery of working out, I might as well give it my very best. Now I don’t necessarily think every kid should be forced into a strenuous workout every day at school, however, I think everyone should learn the feeling of accomplishment you get after exercise. 

One of the most important things for students especially to remember is that a great workout doesn’t only come from running a mile or doing fifty pushups. Some of the best and most fun workouts I’ve ever done have come from hiking, spinning, and dancing. 

The more variety schools have in their physical education programs, the more kids will find things they actually enjoy doing. One of my favorite ways to get a good sweat in is by doing zumba. I did it for the first time in gym class at school and now frequently do it in my house when I feel like getting my blood flowing during the week. 

This is something I’ll keep doing far after my high school life ends. Physical Education in schools can help kids find something they like to keep them active when they aren’t forced to do something for an hour at school.”  (Check Out The Rest Of Jenna’s Article Here)

Check out how PLT4M can help make Physical Education for everyone at your school! 

So next time we hear, 1) Not For Everyone, 2) Not Solving Our Societal Problems 3) New Approaches Upending Traditional Proven Strategies, let’s look at schools like Canton. 

Physical Education is for everyone. Physical Education can promote healthy lives outside of the classroom. And we can be mindful of the world we live in to give the best options and opportunities to serve our students.

Are you already doing this at your school? Kudos, share the positive ways you do in the comments section! 

If you are not? Have no fear, Physical Education is here to stay and the PE people will keep beating their drum until it becomes as valued in schools as English, Math, Science and every other core subject.