Originally published Nov. 9, 2017 in the Utica Observer-Dispatch.

Dodgeball and rope climbing might have a place in the physical fitness regimen. But when it comes to teaching kids the real importance of fitness, some school districts have moved beyond traditional “gym” activities toward lessons that can last a lifetime.

More schools should do it.

With the childhood obesity rate at about 17 percent, the federal education law passed in December 2015 to replace No Child Left Behind elevates health and fitness to rank among things like art, music, civics and science as elements of a well-rounded education.


Dr. Paul Ohlbaum runs in the annual Boilermaker race. He continues to display his love for running at age 82. File photo

It’s about time. Like music and art, which often are foolishly targeted when trimming budgets, introducing young people to physical activities they can continue years after high school is just common sense.

For instance, the Victor School District in suburban Rochester has done away with “gym class” as most of us know it, and instead offers things like kayaking, rock climbing, mountain biking, dance, self-defense, archery and in-line skating — all under the heading of physical education.

In Washington, D.C., teachers put all of the district’s second-graders on bicycles to gain a lifelong skill. Sixth-graders learn orienteering, including how to read a compass and geocache. High schoolers swim.

And at Tahoma Senior High School in Covington, Washington, students go fly-fishing and rock climbing as part of an “Outdoor Academy” program that also incorporates English Language Arts and environmental science. All freshmen take a foundations class that lets them explore things like dance, yoga, strength and conditioning. These are things you can do whether you’re 8 or 80. Witness veteran Boilermaker runner Paul Ohlbaum, still out there running at age 82.

“Our (school) motto is ‘future ready.’ We want kids to leave with a plan for the future, whether it’s college or the military or going straight to the workforce, and I think the same needs to be true about their health,” said Tahoma physical education teacher Tracy Krause.

About a decade ago, the late Helen Robinson, then a physical education teacher at Utica’s Jefferson Elementary School, began a “Healthy Steps” program in the district that combined nutrition education, a healthier menu in the cafeteria and stepped-up gym classes. In 2003, Robinson was named the second-place winner in a national search for the creative teacher of the year sponsored by Dole Food Company. She was recognized for her “outstanding efforts in educating her students” about the importance of eating fruits and vegetables.

Utica Superintendent Bruce Karam said the “Healthy Steps” program no longer exists, although the district does put focus on nutrition in other ways. But he said he was particularly intrigued by what districts like Victor are doing and plans to look into it.

Schools that teach – and strongly promote – life skills through sports like running, tennis, golf and cycling are helping young people of all athletic abilities pave a path toward a healthy future – not to mention what it can do for a young person’s self-esteem. Physical education teachers who pitch only competitive activities might discourage kids who are less talented than other classmates or simply just not interested. As a result, these kids might shun physical activity altogether.

The goal should be to meet all students where they are and move forward, said Cheryl Richardson, senior director of programs at SHAPE America, the Society of Health and Physical Educators, not “where P.E. is so hard that they learn to hate it or associate it with some sort of torture.”

It’s just good sense. You can’t force a kid who lacks musical skills to play the trombone, but you can teach him to appreciate music – something he can enjoy the rest of his life.

So be it with physical fitness.

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