Monday, October 4, 2010


Physical education is treated as one of the least necessary of subjects taught to children within the public school system, and yet a quick look around at today's children reveals that something is very wrong in making PE such a low priority. A longer look around will link this problem with rising overall health care costs and point to a potentially crippling social problem. I think back to my own brief physical education experience provided to me during my young years, and I think that whatever good I've done my body as an adult I've done despite that education, not because of it. This is to say that what is needed is not simply more of the same but rather a qualitatively better approach.

One idea is to chuck the sans philosophy attitude of traditional PE and to begin actively teaching kids the whys and wherefores of what they're doing. Of course, this won't work at too young of an age, probably before the capacity for symbolic thought has been attained, but at some point kids should begin to understand how their body works rather than blindly continuing to do their push-ups and hamstring stretches out of compliance.

This doesn't have to be deep or rigorously scientific stuff. A little knowledge can go a long way. For example, I began running independently as a teenager and have always had an above-average aerobic capacity, and yet it was only during my late-twenties that I stumbled upon the core of what aerobic exercise actually is: to absorb lots and lots of oxygen. As stupid is this is, until then I thought that the point was to get into good enough shape not to get out of breath; now I train with the understanding that the goal is the complete and utter opposite. A little more precisely, the energy output of the whole body is directly proportional to the input of the oxygen, and so more oxygen equals more power.

This is not rocket science, and kids don't need a health class or anatomy class substitute for PE, teaching them the Krebs cycle or other obscure textbook facts. Rather, we should be equipping all children with the basic understanding of good health rather than a habit of good health. A habit lasts only as long as one's environment does not change—not long at all—whereas an understanding lasts a lifetime.

Now, how do we implement this?


Lindsey said...

Good thoughts, good questions. I don't think I've educated my children well at all with regards to an understanding of formal physical exercise. I do think they eat better than the average American children and play a lot less video games and watch less tv. They probably play outside as much or more than their public/private school counterparts (which is to say, not too terribly much) because I find that humidity and mosquitoes are just so damn troublesome. However, the weather is great now and I'm letting them "be kids" more outside, despite my skin crawling from the layers of dirt they are aquiring. I would guess that they are sick less than the average child, but I may be wrong on that. I definitely would like to help them learn to exercize, but I'm not good at it myself. :( (Besides summoning the desire, I hardly know how to carve the time out of life to do it.)

This local article is dismaying: It's not so much about a lack of PE (though that's definitely part of it) but an utter lack of time for them to run off steam and be silly and wild and get that energy out in the outdoors.

Filc said...

I remember about 1963 when JFK enacted fitness testing in schools. Testing included 600 yards run/walk, chin ups, push ups and sit ups. I am pretty darn sure I remember correctly that we were scored, in percentiles, on how we "measured up" by national norms in each category, by age and gender.

I googled the topic but could not confirm my above recollection, much less whether any form of testing is still done.

Good blog, Craig. I agree that physical wellness is very important to our society's overall well being. If we don't still physical test in schools, we should. I'll admit that the percentile scoring is fraught with legal liabilities and perceived social incorrectness but we should get around or over it because each child should see in black and white how they compare fitness-wise.

cmbrandenburg said...

Lindsey—thanks for the link. I think back to my own public-school education and think that about half of it was flat-out wasted, like explaining a lesson a second and third time so the bottom 10% could catch up. Recess was probably one of the more productive times of the day…

Filc—I remember having the fitness tests, too. I remember doing a mile run, sit-ups, pull-ups, a sit-and-reach flexibility measurement…there may have been one more exercise but I don't remember. As for giving kids quantitative feedback on how they're doing, I can't agree more.