Why Kids Need "Gym Class"

For many children, physical education class is their only opportunity to learn about the relationships among exercise, nutrition, and health.
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I hated "gym" when I was a kid. I didn't want to climb the rope, especially with 30 other children and the teacher watching, when I was terrified of heights -- and rope burns. I couldn't jump the horse and didn't understand why I had to. The sight of a dodgeball coming my way instilled unspeakable fear in me. And don't get me started on waiting to be picked for a team.

But life can be funny. Despite all of that, I became a children's physical activity specialist -- and ended up teaching a required course to physical education majors. (And, yes, "physical education" is the correct name for this content area, not the name of the place in which it's typically held.) Also, despite all of that, I'm here to put in a plug for PE -- for all schoolchildren, but most especially those in the earliest grades.

There are many reasons why I feel strongly enough about PE to write about it. For many children physical education class is their only opportunity to learn about the relationships among exercise, nutrition, and health. It is their only opportunity to engage in moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity. (Other physical activity programs can depend on such factors as affordability, making the cut, parent support, and transportation.) For young children it can be their only opportunity to acquire basic body management skills, like body-part identification, spatial awareness, and such abilities as stopping and starting on signal. Many a child has arrived in the early- and upper-elementary grades not knowing her elbows from her shoulders, unable to line up without getting too close to someone else, or lacking the ability to come to a timely halt when faced with an unexpected (or even an expected!) obstacle.

While these skills may not seem as important to many as are literacy and numeracy skills, lack of them may well result in sedentary children who eventually become sedentary adults -- as will failure to develop mature patterns for basic motor skills.

Most people, it seems, believe children automatically acquire motor skills as their bodies develop -- that it's a natural, "magical" process that occurs along with maturation. Unfortunately, this is an easy assumption to make. After all, one day the infant simply rolls over, eventually begins to crawl and creep, and then, with only a little assistance and a lot of enthusiastic encouragement from adults, takes those first steps. Then, almost before we know it, the child is off and running. So it certainly appears those motor skills miraculously occur and take care of themselves. And, to a certain extent, it's true. However, maturation takes care of only part of the process -- the part that allows a child to execute most movement skills at an immature level.

What does that mean? That means a child who "throws like a girl" or runs "funny" or only by accident manages to connect foot to ball. It means a child who eventually loses confidence in his ability to play like the other kids. He feels clumsy and inferior and, to avoid humiliation, avoids physical activity. He grows up with the belief that he "can't throw," "can't dance," is "uncoordinated," or "lousy at anything physical." He becomes one of the couch potatoes among us.

Physical education class can help prevent the potato! Someone needs to teach young children where their elbows and shoulders are, about the space immediately surrounding their bodies (and what they're able to do within it), how to stop and start, and the many ways in which it's possible to move. Someone needs to offer instruction, practice opportunities, assessment, and the chance to fine-tune. Someone needs to help children retain the love of movement with which they're born so they will keep moving. And that someone should be a trained physical education professional.

Perhaps you have the same memories of "gym class" that I have, in which case you'd be justified in wondering why, when the budget gets tight, we should continue financing the agony of innocent children. To you I would suggest that times have changed -- and so has PE -- and that you go to the website of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education to learn how.

And if you're one of those people who believe that young children already "move enough," I would recommend that you listen to what the experts had to say about the growing physical inactivity crisis -- and the facts about how much movement preschoolers actually experience - in this segment of Body, Mind and Child.

Why do kids need PE? Given the staggering rates of childhood and adult obesity, and health risk factors such as hypertension and arteriosclerosis appearing at younger and younger ages, it would seem the answer is obvious.

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