Originally published Jan. 25, 2018 in the Daily Courier.
By Nanci Hutson
Holding her tennis racket waist high, Taylor Hicks Elementary fourth-grader Lydia Mathis bounced a red and yellow ball as if she were flipping pancakes.
She kept a firm, but flexible wrist to keep control of the ball as she launched it higher and higher without dropping it onto the floor.
All around her, Mathis classmates’ were doing similar actions, their physical education teacher Melissa Bates weaving among them offering tips and encouragement to each one as they practiced the drill.
Tennis is one of a variety of sports that elementary-aged children get a chance to explore through the district’s physical education curriculum, which looks quite a bit different than gym classes of yesteryear.
PUSD’s physical education classes are all about skill development and the promotion of lifelong health and fitness through exposure to not only traditional team sports, like soccer and basketball, but also to tennis, rock climbing, pickleball and yoga.
At Mile High Middle School, students are getting introductions to sports that are popular in other countries, including a brand of fencing from France, a super-sized volleyball type game from Canada and Tchoukball from Switzerland, a game that appears to be a cross between soccer and hockey.
“You don’t have to be a good basketball player or fear being the last picked for a team,” said Taylor Hicks, physical education teacher Melissa Bates. “This is about activities for every child. I don’t expect everyone to be good at everything, but I hope they find something.”
That’s not to say the children aren’t introduced to traditional sports, and many play on teams outside of school.
“But we do so much more,” Bates said.
Once a week for 45 minutes, Bates engages every student from kindergarten to fourth grade in an energy-pumping session that begins with some aerobic exercise and gymnastic-style stretches and abdominal workouts. Then she does some skill instruction in whatever activity or sport the children are going to play before she does a show-and-tell, with the children following her lead.
Bates said she might do a lesson on orienteering, how to throw a ball or even slide without injury. She interjects into all the lessons the importance of exercise to stay healthy and focused on school work.
At the end of every class, the students play some kind of game: raising and lowering a parachute, relays, even the occasional dodgeball, but with smaller, softer balls, donated by a parent.
Bates also challenges children with what she calls the “Smelly Feet” award; a treat for students simply putting on their sneakers for class. Sessions are lively and fun, with the children tested not on athletic prowess, but on progress and a willingness to try.
“I keep them active the whole time,” Bates said, stressing with the children the need for them to be on the move in and out of school, whether it’s jump rope with friends at the bus stop or gardening at home.
At Mile High, the physical education and health teacher Ian Owens, who is also the school’s coach for cross country and track and field, said he appreciates the chance to introduce students to “novel and exploratory activities” that are likely to be new to them.
“Introducing a brand new activity equals the playing field amongst all ability levels and strengthens growth and culture in the students,” said Owens, who emphasizes multi-cultural sports and games.
Owens’ program also is infused with health topics and anatomy, which requires students to consider healthy choices as part of a “whole child” educational model.
“The ‘whole child’ model includes not just academic rigor and homework assistance, but also the physical activity needed in youth, empowering-decision tools, to make healthy decisions, and providing an environment to support love and growth as a community,” Owens said.
PUSD leaders, too, have bucked the tide of eliminating physical education when budgets get tight, Owens and other leaders noted.
“I believe in physical education,” said Bates, a mother of two, whose husband, Dan, is a Prescott firefighter. “Kids need movement to release their energy, so they can stay focused in class. P.E. helps make them a well-rounded person.”
PUSD Assistant Schools Superintendent Mardi Read said the district has a “parallel” philosophy between academic and physical education.
“In our academic classrooms, we want to create lifelong learners; in our physical education classrooms, we want to promote lifelong activity,” Read said. “We want our students to make healthy choices their whole life.”