Students emerge from the locker room in their lime-green trainers, knee-high tube socks, black shorts, and white T-shirt—it’s time for gym class!
By now you’re probably envisioning gym teachers from the many satirical movies that portray physical education class as an environment of jocks versus geeks where only the strong survive. You might even be thinking about your own childhood experiences. In either case, it’s time to end the old-school misconceptions of gym class.
In the 1800s, the focus of physical education hinged on gymnastics and hygiene. It then morphed into a sports-dominated subject over the next century. During the 1950s and 1960s, there was a belief that American children were not fit enough for military service, so the government pushed for transforming physical education for all children through fitness testing in the form of the Presidential Physical Fitness Test.
There was a major decline in physical education programs in the United States between 1980 and 1990 due to economic concerns and poor curricula in many schools. Since that time, however, there has been significant research concluding that physical activity has a direct impact on student achievement. Many states have begun to re-evaluate the importance of physical education programs in schools. Additionally, there has been a tremendous growth in childhood obesity. According to the “2016 Shape of the Nation” report published by SHAPE America (the Society of Health and Physical Educators), “the current reality is that 32 percent of children and adolescents (ages 2–19) are overweight or obese, and most are too sedentary, do not meet physical activity recommendations, and are not offered sufficient physical education.”
Since 2015, physical education has been considered part of a well-rounded education under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). However, we continue to see a reduction in physical education programs in the United States. At the same time, it is impossible to go a day without hearing about the high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression that plague our children in the face of research, showing that movement and physical education can help combat these mental health issues.
Even though many physical education programs are bringing high-quality instruction to students and meet all the criteria for an academic subject, myths about gym class and physical education endure. Let’s debunk those myths and inspire you to provide better PE programs in your schools.
Debunking PE Myths
Myth: Gym equals physical education.
Fact: There is a saying in the world of physical education: “The gymnasium is the room that I teach in, but I am a physical education teacher.” Physical education is an essential component of a student’s education. In fact, since 2015 with the passing of ESSA, physical education is one of the 18 core subjects. As with other content areas, physical education has a national organization—SHAPE America—plus, national standards and grade-level outcomes. Physical educators complete rigorous teacher preparation programs and become state and national board-certified teachers for students in grades preK–12. In fact, at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, MI, it takes five years to complete an undergraduate teacher preparation program in physical education.
According to SHAPE America, students in grades K–6 should engage in 150 minutes per week of structured physical education, and secondary students (grades 6–12) should be given 225 minutes of structured physical education all year. Unfortunately, this is not what schools typically offer their students. In fact, according to the “2016 Shape of the Nation” report, only Oregon and the District of Columbia met the national recommendations for weekly time in physical education at both elementary and middle level schools. In Michigan and Connecticut, there is no mandated requirement for the number of minutes of physical education offered. High school students must earn one physical education credit for graduation; in reality this is a half credit hour for physical education and a half credit hour for a health class. It should also be noted that states do not have methods in place for enforcing the physical education requirements.
Myth: Gym class is a time for students to “get out energy.”
Fact: Physical education teachers should be using an organized curriculum with standards-based lesson plans that focus on 21st-century skills and the “what, why, and how” of learning. Ask your teachers: What will students be learning that day (standards, goal, focus, objectives)? Why will they be learning it (how does it help students increase their physical literacy)? How will they know they’ve been successful with the learning (students need frequent and summative feedback each lesson)? In high-quality physical education classes, students grow and develop their physical literacy in the cognitive, affective, and psychomotor domains. For example, a seventh-grade outcome might be: “Practice strategies for dealing with stress, such as deep breathing, guided visualization, and aerobic exercise.” This is much more than just “free play” time.
Students learn concepts and strategies and must put them into practice in real-life situations. SHAPE America (2015) outlines the essential components of physical education: policy and environment, curriculum, appropriate instruction, and student assessment. While it’s a convenient byproduct of movement, the purpose of physical education is far more complex than simply allowing students to “burn off some energy.”
Myth: Dodgeball and kickball are appropriate physical education activities.
Fact: SHAPE America’s position statement specifically states that “human target” games such as dodgeball should never be played in physical education due to the mental health of students and the high number of injuries.
Myth: Students should be playing full-sided team sports in physical education.
Fact: Students should focus on small-sided games that optimize skill practice for each student, giving them maximum contact time with the equipment.
Myth: The main focus of physical education is on competitive sports.
Fact: Only about 50 percent of students will play competitive sports in high school, according to a high school athletics participation survey conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations, and only about 5 percent will continue to participate in these traditional sports as adults.
Myth: Physical education takes away from learning time in math, language arts, and science.
Fact: Research has shown that quality physical education and movement time have a significant impact on student learning. High-quality physical education programs also include an assortment of math, reading, writing, and science concepts in every single class. Students will often learn language arts and math faster when paired with physical education, as opposed to spending extra time sitting in those subject areas. Utilizing the Cultural Studies curricular model within middle level and high school physical education programs allows teachers to include other content areas while teaching movement.
Myth: Assessment in physical education is based on changing clothes and effort.
Fact: In fact, if this is how students are assessed in physical education, then you might as well cut the program from your school. Students should be assessed in the following domains—cognitive, affective, and psychomotor skills. These assessments should be developmentally appropriate, authentic, and based on state or national standards. They should measure student growth and development in a variety of areas. Subjective grading on changing clothes, attendance, and how hard teachers perceive a student to be working (effort) should not be a part of any quality physical education program.
Myth: Physical education is planning time for elementary classroom teachers.
Fact: Physical education is an important content area for students and should be given the same respect that is offered to classroom teachers. School districts often schedule classroom preps during special area lessons (art, music, and PE), but that should in no way diminish what students learn during that time. Additionally, students should not be held back from physical education lessons because they did not complete classroom work or had disruptive classroom behavior.
The bottom line: It’s time to put an end to old-fashioned gym class and start holding physical education teachers to the same standards and expectations as other teachers in school. Quality physical education programs are an essential component of the well-rounded education of our young people.
Ingrid Johnson, PhD, is an associate professor of movement science at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, MI. Mike Ginicola, EdS, is a K–6 physical education teacher at Nichols Elementary School in Stratford, CT.