The Importance of Physical Education for Kids
School gym class offers a mental break from academics, team-building skills and exercise for screen-obsessed kids. So why is phys ed being dialed down at local schools?
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"I'm so glad I have gym class tomorrow," said my fifth grader as she was helping me clear the dinner table.
"Why is that?" I asked, since my daughter didn't normally say much about PE.
"We have testing all day, and it's just nice to take a break," she said.
I suspect many kids – like my 10-year-old – see running around, jumping rope and all the activities in physical education as a reprieve from the other academic rigors of their day. Just ask children what their favorite class is in school and, if their first answer isn't "gym class," it's likely the second (right after "recess").
As it turns out, this time away from sitting at a desk may be exactly what kids need to do better once they're back in math, science or reading. Study after study points out that the benefits of physical education go far beyond fitness and can lead to higher scores on standardized tests, increased concentration and other academic advantages.
Yet in spite of all the research pointing out the perks of regular phys ed for kids, gym class time is decreasing for students across the board – from kindergarten to high school. And the results are evident: A recent study by the American Heart Association found that it takes kids today an average 90 seconds longer to run a mile than it took kids 30 years ago.
What kids learn in gym
A typical gym class is fairly similar between all grades, says Pat Van Volkinburg, chair of the University of Michigan's department of physical education: "The kids will come in and have a warm-up for five to six minutes, which could include running laps, dribbling the soccer ball, jumping rope."
Warm-ups are followed by training time, where students receive instruction in a new skill or practice one they've been learning, like serving a volleyball or running with good form. Then the kids have an activity that reinforces those skills – sometimes a group game. At the end of class, students cool down with stretches and may review what they learned as part of a group discussion.
Beyond the physical activity, gym class holds other lessons. "There's also the social aspect of PE," notes Van Volkinburg. "It teaches people how to be kind to each other, how to be a good sport, how to apologize. That doesn't happen in math or English class."
Kids are also discovering different sports and new activities during their time in gym.
"I really try to vary the activities we do in class as much as possible," says Michelle Unkovich, a physical education teacher at Davis Junior High School in Sterling Heights.
"My main goal is to have students find some type of activity that they like. We try a little bit of everything. I want them to be able to take away from class something that will help them to stay active."
Shrinking gym time
Through the years, as schools are required to administer additional standardized tests to students and more emphasis has been placed on core subjects like reading, math and the sciences, physical education time has been cut.
"It seems like the minutes students have in gym class decreases every year," says Van Volkinburg. "Depending on the school district, the students may have PE three days a week for 30 minutes, some have it for 40 minutes once a week. You really can't do a lot in that amount of time."
Cheryl Gawel, a physical education teacher at Poupard Elementary School in Harper Woods and Mason Elementary in Grosse Pointe Woods, points out that her students have PE once every four days for 45 minutes. At Pittsfield Elementary in Ann Arbor, Darcy Knoll, the PE teacher there, has 30-minute class periods twice a week for kindergarten through fourth graders; fifth graders have PE once a week for 45 minutes.
But the biggest cut to gym class has come at the high school level. According to our state board of education, Michigan "requires one credit of health and physical education for graduation. Schools have flexibility in how they meet the requirement." The broad requirement has left school districts to figure out what one credit looks like. For some, it's half a semester of physical education, while for others, students are required to have a full semester. That means that during freshman year, a student could take one semester of physical education and then never visit the gym again during the rest of high school.
The mandate goes even further to erode physical education at the high school level. There are several ways to get around ever going to gym class.