Elementary physical education benefits more than physical fitness

Children run, they jump, they play, they ride their bikes (in the spring, summer and fall), they go sledding and have snowball fights. It probably seems - especially to parents in the immediate aftermath of Christmas vacation - that children have energy to spare, and that physical fitness for kids shouldn't be a problem.

Well, not exactly. Kids still spend lots of hours outside; they still ride their bikes and play baseball and climb on the monkey bars. They still run and play hide and seek. But computers and video games apparently have cut into the time many children spend outside. A more sedentary lifestyle and high-calorie foods have contributed to an increase in childhood obesity.

Okay, there's still the playground at school. There are still physical education classes at school, too - well, wait. There are a lot of grade schools nationwide that don't have PE any more, or don't offer it as a separate class. There's only so much time in the school day, y'know, and the federal government and most states have mandated standards in reading and writing that schools (and kids) are supposed to reach. Administrators in many schools nationwide have decided that time that could go to PE has to go elsewhere.

And that's a pity, according to PE teachers in the Quad City area; physical fitness plays a role in improving mental fitness.

Steve Wallace, who teaches PE at Bridgeport Elementary School, actually is writing a research paper on the relationship between physical education and the classroom.

"I believe physical education has the potential to assist young students in the development of basic motor and problem-solving skills," he wrote. "Through games and activities students learn to work with others and establish goals. Success in physical education will improve their self-esteem and will increase the likelihood for them to pursue future challenges."

Actually, physical education can provide benefits long after children grow up. Mike Spurr, the PE teacher at Brewster Elementary School, says he tries to teach children a wide array of team and individual sports and games, especially activities that will still interest them after they grow up.

"Something they can do for exercise, just as stress relief, later in life," Spurr said. Brewster School District officials eliminated the elementary PE program for a few years after the failure of a maintenance and operations levy. But it was reinstated as part of a subsequent levy; district patrons indicated elementary PE was one of the things they wanted back at school.

Spurr said kids are active at school, in PE and at recess, and a percentage of them will go outside and play when they go home, but there's a certain percentage that won't, and "it's that other percent that I'm trying to grab." Spurr said it's important for all children, no matter how coordinated they are or aren't, to find some physical activity they can do successfully.

One of Spurr's students is confined to a wheelchair, but he plays floor hockey along with the rest of his class; Mr. Spurr pushes the wheelchair around. Physical education is for all kids; "I try to find ways for everybody to get involved and have success," Spurr said.

On a recent Monday afternoon the sixth graders were playing kickball in Brewster's multipurpose room. (For those whose grade school days are far behind them, kickball is baseball with a rubber ball. A pitcher, an infield, advancing around the bases - everything's there.) One player got up a good head of steam and kicked the ball hard - and it bounced off the back wall and right into the arms of an outfielder. Oooh, bad break; outside that thing would've rolled forever and the hitter would've scored easily. But bad breaks aren't confined to kickball, and that's another reason PE is part of a well-rounded education.

Spurr said he plans to teach the grade school kids all the sports played at the high school; "I'm a firm believer in interscholastic sports." Playing on a team, winning and losing, teaches its own lessons. "I'm a believer in winning-and losing, and learning how to do both well." And on a national level, "we're not there yet." In Spurr's opinion, examples of sportsmanship are rarer than they used to be.

"I hardly watch professional sports now, because of the sportsmanship involved," or the lack of it in excessive celebrations and taunting opponents. "It really sets a bad example." So kids need to experience winning and losing for themselves and learn how to deal with them.

So, children learn about winning and losing gracefully, how to try something new and difficult and figure out how to do it, and then actually do it. That knowledge gives them a base to meet new and different challenges in the future. Children are encouraged to get in the habit of physical fitness and PE improves their physical coordination. So what's not to like about PE?

Wallace said he decided on a career as a PE teacher because it helped kids with their self-confidence and their ability to cope with and master challenges. "However, over the years it has seemed that the development of these valuable tools is not enough in today's educational system," he wrote. "I find it difficult to understand why schools are being judged solely on their ability to improve standardized test scores, while at the same time educators are being taught (theories of) multiple intelligences. Nonetheless physical education, along with art and music, have become expendable luxuries unless they are able to demonstrate how they can impact a student's academic success.

"Fortunately, neuroscience has suggested that physical activity improves brain function by increasing blood flow in the brain and increasing the levels of brain-cell growth hormones. These studies also show that physical activity improves the level of concentration and overall mood of students during classroom instruction. Therefore it seems that many schools are actually decreasing the probability of improved test scores by cutting physical education."

They do a little bit of everything in PE; the good old stuff like kickball, all the games like basketball and football, baseball and soccer and volleyball. They do fun stuff that adults don't get to play any more, like pickleball (a form of tennis), Frisbee golf, floor hockey and "ultimate Frisbee football." They play badminton and learn gymnastics. Spurr said the idea is to try a little bit of everything and find something that every child can do. "That's my hope."

User menu

NCW Media Newspapers