The P.E. Shift
Phys ed programs are getting away from team sports—with great physical and academic results.
Gym class at Churchill High School in San Antonio doesn’t look much like it did a few years ago. Students no longer sit on the sidelines, bored or anxious, or refuse to get suited up for competitive team sports.
Instead, they’re fully engaged in rock climbing, biking, or working out on the elliptical machine in the school’s new fitness center. When his district devised a program with this new approach to physical education, Principal Jeffrey Vaughan didn’t hesitate to adopt it.
“Students need to build more than English and math skills for a successful future,” says Vaughan. They also need to be physically fit, he says, but for a lot of kids, team sports wasn’t the answer. With the district’s move away from competitive group activities, Vaughan has seen more kids getting involved in exercise—which has helped them relieve their stress and perform better academically.
Fitness for Life
Across the country, P.E. programs have been shifting from competition to individual fitness, introducing students to “lifetime sports.” After all, it’s more likely that as adults they will regularly practice yoga or ride a bike for exercise than play flag football or volleyball.
The new approach also lets students track their own success—whether by logging mileage with a pedometer or charting their progress lifting weights. That emphasis on assessment and tracking results dovetails with the broader currents in education reform, notes Francesca Zavacky, of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE).
“Education as a whole has moved to an examination of what we are teaching children and what they are learning,” she notes.
More assessment is being woven into P.E., says Zavacky, with the goal of improving students’ lifelong health. In many districts, kids set their own fitness goals and measure their progress with tools such as the Fitnessgram assessment, provided by the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition.
The transformation is not without its challenges. It can be tough to win over veteran phys ed teachers who are most comfortable with traditional sports. Also, new activities might require new equipment—a tough order in an era of tight budgets. Yet, with administrative support and some creative scheduling, schools can make major changes in P.E. programs that can help students be healthy for life.
To make the transformation happen at Churchill, Vaughan assured physical education teachers that they would be provided with the curriculum, training, and resources they required, and he allowed them to experiment in the first year. He discovered teachers were open-minded and that momentum grew once they saw the results.
“You have to have enthusiastic people who will buy in and own it,” he says. “Otherwise it won’t work.”
The district’s director of physical education, health, and athletics, Rachel Naylor, says that when she came to the job nearly 10 years ago, coaches were teaching what they knew best: activities based on team sports, in classes with up to 80 students.
To get support for an approach with broader appeal, Naylor organized a trip for principals, including Vaughan, to a district in Illinois to observe its innovative P.E. programs.
“The buy-in is what makes the difference, getting everybody to believe this is important and that students should enjoy going to P.E. classes,” says Naylor.
Naylor also listened to her P.E. teachers. They expressed frustration with large classes, inadequate equipment, and lack of curriculum. “They gave me their list—and every bit of it was legitimate,” she says. “I worked very hard to eliminate those things [that weren’t working]. Once they saw changes being made to make their world better, teachers started buying in to what we needed them to do.”
New grant money helped Naylor outfit middle schools and high schools with equipment for fitness centers and with heart-rate monitors. She revamped the curriculum with biking, golf, and cardio activities, and provided teachers with the necessary training. By improving scheduling, she reduced the size of secondary-level P.E. classes to an average of 35 students.
Next, the district plans to introduce Rollerblading and a “fit chef” class that ties nutrition to exercise. “We try to give kids a buffet of choices to be active,” says Naylor. “They step up to the plate and are excited that you brought in something new.” These days, educators from around the country are visiting San Antonio to look at its model P.E. programs.
Patience is the key to a successful transformation, says Naylor. “Rejoice in the small victories. Don’t overwhelm yourself when something doesn’t happen overnight. It’s like turning a gigantic battleship. If you try to turn it too fast, it will sink. You have to turn slowly to keep everyone on board.”
It’s important to connect school activities with what’s available in the community, says Zavacky. For instance, when she was working at a school in Virginia near a national park, she started programs in canoeing, hiking, and orienteering, and arranged for field trips. The school offered ski instruction, and she led a ski club so students could use their skills on the slopes.
In Miami, lifetime sports can’t help but be defined by the ocean—be it sailing, deep-sea fishing, or snorkeling. The Miami Yacht Club has made space available for students during the daytime. “During school hours, their facilities are empty,” says Jayne Greenberg, physical education and health literacy director for the Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
“The staff at the yacht club was excited to work with us, and there are so many retirees who love working with kids.” Instruction on the water is also tied to science and math, with lessons on weather and sea life, she says.
Not all teachers embraced the new activities, says Greenberg. So she continued to challenge them and matched funding with teacher interest. Eventually, teachers found that becoming certified in yoga instruction or starting a Spinning class reinvigorated them with the energy they said they had in their first year of teaching.
To get students at Woodford County Schools in Versailles, Kentucky, to try golf, county P.E. coordinator Melody Hamilton brought in a professional from the LPGA Tour to show the kids some strokes. “They thought it was supercool,” says Hamilton. The golf unit is now offered in elementary, middle, and high school, and the county has established an intramural golf club.
Working with the United Way and adult volunteers, the county set up seven-hole courses at elementary schools for kids to play best-ball golf. “We are reaching out to the community in ways that haven’t been done before,” says Hamilton. “We even have folks who take off work to volunteer.”
To start her biking program, Hamilton bought confiscated bikes for $5 each from the police department and got a local bike club to donate helmets. At the end of the biking unit, volunteers help put on a 10-mile ride.
Debbie DeFranco, who supervises P.E. programs in Arlington Public Schools in Virginia, asked teachers, administrators, and school board members what they did to stay physically active. She used their own commitment to golfing, swimming, running, and biking to sell them on supporting lifetime sports in the schools.
With the help of grant money, DeFranco bought equipment and arranged for training to certify staff for new programs such as biking, yoga, and weight training. She especially likes the community connection: when students are out on bikes or when the public uses the high school pools for noon swims. “It’s important for the public to see that schools value the resources the public has paid for,” she says.
In Woodford, as in many other districts, students still get a chance to participate in traditional sports. Hamilton acknowledges that there is a place for competitiveness, but she modifies games to make sure that they involve everyone. For example, to “level the playing field” in basketball, stronger players may only get one point for a basket, while players with special needs may get three points.
Old Games, New Twists
At Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey, “we are moving away from P.E., where really skillful kids dominate and those not as skilled stand by and hope the teacher doesn’t notice them,” says gym teacher Judy LoBianco.
Instead of one large game with 45 students, LoBianco may set up four games with 10 kids each, so that everyone gets a chance to move. When students play volleyball, she videotapes their serves so they can analyze their technique and work to improve their performance.
The school’s “Project Adventure” offers activities such as wall climbing as a way to promote cooperation. Kayaking lessons and scuba instruction are given in the swimming pool; other offerings include yoga classes and table tennis. Every year, LoBianco surveys students on their favorite activities and uses the feedback to build the next year’s program. “There must be selections that appeal to the interests of every child,” she says.
And though generations of kids played dodgeball in gym class at Mirror Lake Elementary School in Villa Rica, Georgia, phys ed teacher J. D. Hughes decided to drop it after overhearing kids banter in the hallways about wanting to get back at one another after being hit by the ball during gym class.
“Even though it was good exercise, kids left angry,” he says. “That defeats the purpose.” Now, Hughes focuses on running, building individual physical skills, and games with equipment like Hula-Hoops and Frisbees, which promote cooperation.
“I want to expose kids to as many activities as I can, so that when they take the next step, they feel confident,” he says. “Teaching lifetime sports is really my goal."