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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"They can test out," explains Roxane McCormick, a gym teacher at Salem High School, part of Plymouth-Canton Educational Park.
"In our district, it's a three-part test that involves running, swimming and a written portion. Students have to pass all three with an 80 percent score or better."
Another option? The state mandate includes a provision that students who take an additional class – like language arts, mathematics, science or world language courses – can use those classes to replace gym. Or a student's PE credit can be waived if he or she participates in extracurriculars that involve activity; the state includes sports and marching band on the list.
"Physical education requirements keep dwindling," says McCormick. "Students really need more time than that."
Benefits of phys ed
For many kids, gym class may be the only activity they get not just during the school day – but sometimes the whole week.
"I strongly believe that physical education is the only activity/exercise that some students obtain each week," says Knoll, who has been a PE teacher for 15 years. She points out that children are less active and healthy than they used to be.
While phys ed alone isn't the answer to helping kids become more active, it certainly can guide them toward finding activities they enjoy and give them a chance to exercise during the school day. Recent stats report that among adolescents in Michigan, almost 15 percent are overweight – and nearly 12 percent are obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
McCormick has seen how higher obesity rates have impacted students in her gym class. "We have kids who have a hard time just walking around the track at a quick pace. We try to teach them how to pick it up to improve their activity levels. It's hard to keep at it if you don't have anyone supporting you."
Gym class can be a place for students to not only have activity during their school day but also explore different sports. "We're teaching them skills that they can take with them – skills they can have and use for the rest of their lives," McCormick says.
Although it can be discouraging for PE teachers to see their time with students cut, McCormick tries to focus on the positive impact gym can have – no matter how short.
"Just having the kids for one semester, I notice vast improvements. For example, we do a pre- and post-test with running. I often have students at the beginning (of the semester) who have a hard time doing three laps during the timed test. By the end of the semester, those same students are doing two-and-a-half or three miles in the same amount of time. They just need a little encouragement."
Helping kids stay fit
How can you tell if your child is getting enough exercise? Sixty minutes of vigorous to moderate-intensity exercise a day – that's how much exercise both the American Academy of Pediatrics and other health experts recommend children get each day.
How do you know whether exercise is "vigorous" or "moderate intensity"? A good rule of thumb is that children should break a sweat during the activity. But they should still be able to talk while doing it. If they're out of breath, they've probably pushed too far.
Gym teachers agree: When it comes to inspiring kids to be active, mom and dad are key. Here are a few ways they say parents can help children get more out of phys ed.
"Ask your child, 'What did you do in physical education today?' and 'Can we do that together?," Van Volkinburg suggests.
"Do an activity with your child. Not only is this physically healthy, but it also develops a healthy relationship between parent and child," says Knoll.
"Your children love your gift of time! Walk, bike, swim, twirl a jump rope, play catch, shoot hoops. Undivided attention time with your kids is so important. No phone, no texts – just you and your guy or gal," suggests Gawel.
Unkovich says, "Emphasize (to your child) why it's important to stay active. We're not exercising to look a certain way; the goal is to stay healthy, fit and strong."