Originally published March 18, 2018 in the Maui News.
By CHRIS SUGIDONO
Matthew Snyder thought back to when he first started teaching physical education 15 years ago at Maui Waena Intermediate School.
“It was all traditional sports,” Snyder recalled Thursday. “The state wanted to change its ways, and I completely bought into their philosophy. It’s way different from when I first started teaching.”
Snyder is among a growing number of physical education teachers statewide who have changed how middle schools think about physical fitness and wellness by incorporating yoga, dancing and skateboarding. Over the past few years, the longtime teacher added another alternative exercise: the healing technique Reiki.
“Middle schools are definitely ahead of the game,” he said.
Reiki is a Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation that also promotes healing, according to The International Center for Reiki Training’s website. It is administered by “laying on hands” and is based on the idea that an unseen “life force energy” flows through people and gives them life.
“I was researching how I could modify all these types of games and introducing different games and for some reason I came across it,” Snyder said. “I looked more into not just the physical aspect of the child, but including the health and wellness part of it.”
Snyder signed up for a class and enjoyed it so much he tries to bring a teacher into each of his classes before the term ends. He also regularly brings instructors for yoga, dance fitness and other alternative exercises for his classes.
“Some students actually gravitate toward that type of physical education,” he said. “Students get a taste of different types of fitness, and it’s not necessarily from me all the time.”
Even when the veteran teacher directs typical games, he tries to “change about 10,000 rules” to level the playing field. He said he remembers when he was growing up and how the more athletic kids would play basketball around the other students as they stood on the court.
“It makes them think and makes it fair for all students,” he said. “I want everybody to feel successful.”
Physical education teachers agreed that the middle school level is arguably the most influential period for physical development in preteens. Most students only exercise once or twice a month in elementary school and by high school they have already started to form their habits.
Shane Cunanan, who has taught physical education for the past 10 years at Lahaina Intermediate, said he has noticed students graduating from 5th grade with minimal motor skills, if they are not playing club sports.
“It really is almost nonexistent,” Cunanan said. “There’s so much focus on math, science, reading and testing. I think kids could really benefit from (regular physical education) and it would really balance them out.”
Snyder said he has many students who come to him not knowing how to skip, gallop or jump rope — and that they have never tried. He added that students struggle figuring out how to solve problems within groups.
Seabury Hall Dean of Students Guy Batchelder spent about half a year rewriting the physical education curriculum for middle-schoolers a couple years ago. Batchelder modeled the program from his home state of California, providing benchmarks for 6th-, 7th- and 8th-graders to meet before graduation.
“They look at it as preventative health care,” he said. “If we get students exercising early and find them something they can burn calories in the long term, it will save their lives.”
The state Department of Education also has shifted its philosophy on physical education, moving its focus from “how” to “why,” officials said in an email Friday. The change has helped students understand the purpose of regular exercising and eating healthy, while building skills, knowledge and confidence for a lifetime of physical activity.
“Quality physical education is needed to increase students’ overall fitness, teach lifelong skills and encourage enjoyment of physical activity,” DOE officials said via email. “Numerous studies have documented a positive association between physical activity and academic achievement through increased concentration, reduced disruptive behavior, better grades and higher test scores.”
The Education Department’s Wellness Guidelines, which were updated in the summer of last year, requires that students participate in physical education programs at least 45 minutes per week in elementary school and 200 minutes per week in middle school. At least 50 percent of class time must be dedicated to moderate to vigorous physical activity.
State officials noted that they are supportive of a variety of physical activities, including culturally based ones like tai chi and Reiki.
Yoga teacher Michael Rhodes, who teaches at Kaunoa Senior Center and Valley Isle Fitness in Kihei, said preteens and teens can benefit from the alternative exercises because it helps them become more in tune with themselves. He added that schools oftentimes suffer from bullying, but classes like yoga bring people together.
“There’s no competition,” Rhodes said. “It has nothing to do with how good or bad you are. It has to do with human connection and how we all need to work our body, especially as we get older.”
While some students may find yoga, Reiki and other exercises a bit weird, Snyder said his goal is to find ways to engage his students and get them excited about fitness and wellness.
“I want to make sure, as much as possible, that every single student enjoyed something about my PE class,” he said.
* Chris Sugidono can be reached at email@example.com.