Originally published May 10, 2022 by KQED.

By Linda Flanagan

Gym class can’t get a break. A highly unscientific sampling of the conventional wisdom on physical education reveals a lot about what kids think of regular, enforced school exercise.

“My least favorite thing about elementary school gym class was the boys being absolutely psycho,” one young woman told me. “Locker rooms were definitely fraught,” said another, about her middle school PE. “It’s not so much the body, as it is performing,” offered another—that pressure to throw and run well for an impromptu team, “so if you screw up a catch or whatever in dodgeball you let them down.”

The humiliation of being passed over when kids pick teams; the awkwardness of having to socialize with strangers from different grades; the Hobson’s choice of either undressing and showering in front of peers or returning to class in sweaty clothes: all these features of physical education contribute to kids’ discomfort.

Studies of student views toward PE add to these accounts. According to researcher Analisa Packham, who examined the impact of a comprehensive physical education program in Texas, kids resist PE because it invites bullying. Packham reported to Alia Wong in The Atlantic that the lack of adult supervision in locker rooms, and ease with which unathletic and overweight kids are teased, explains why PE is unpopular.

The trouble with this resistance is that physical movement is linked to brain health and well-being. Exercise contributes to happiness. It blunts anxiety and thwarts depression. Even 30 minutes of daily “brisk walking,” the World Health Organization asserts, can lift the mood. A study comparing the brain MRIs of active and inactive nine and ten-year-olds found a higher volume of the “white matter” that’s associated with memory and learning among the fit children.

In her book "The Extended Mind," Annie Murphy Paul explains how moving at varied levels of exertion affects the brain: low-intensity enhances executive function; moderate improves problem-solving, focus, memory, and other cognitive advantages; and high-intensity exercise stokes creativity. “The best preparation for such (metaphysical) acts as wrestling with ideas or running through possibilities is to work up an (actual) sweat,” she writes.

These cognitive and emotional advantages that come with exercise suggest that gym class, despite its stigma, is essential to learning. Is there a way to make physical education less alienating—and possibly even appealing—to the thousands of kids who take part?

Some schools have succeeded in making their PE programs popular and well-attended. At A.D. Henderson University School in Florida, the gym elective among middle schoolers is always full; though kids who play sports after school are allowed to skip it, 95 percent attend anyway. At the Girls Athletic Leadership Schools, charter programs for middle and high school kids, physical activity is integrated throughout the school day, and “morning movement” takes the place of PE. At Tuscarora High School in Maryland, where students are required to attend just one physical education section during their four years, about one-third of the students take it throughout high school.

These schools have adapted their physical education programs to help kids enjoy exercise. Educators there explained what makes their programs popular:

We change it up a lot,” said Chris Childs, the athletic director at A.D. Henderson. Childs said that instructors switch units every two to three weeks and include sports that most students will have limited experience playing, like pickleball. Offering new sports options keeps PE fresh. Instructors also make up new games for the students to play as a way to level the playing field; even the most experienced athletes, then, have to learn these games from scratch. And teachers divide units into separate skills, so that a ten-day volleyball section, say, might start with four people working together to practice serving.

Choice is a big buy-in,” Alyssa Worbetz, the director of athletics at GALS charter school, told me. Students progress through three large exercise “units” over the course of the year: team games and yoga; cardio; and choice, wherein kids decide for themselves if they’d like to play soccer or basketball, say, or take up self-defense or running, among other options. Free choice also appeals to students at Tuscarora High School, who get to decide for themselves, every “free-day Friday,” what activity they’ll play that day.

We’re sensitive to kids’ wariness about the locker room,” said Howard Putterman, the athletic director at Tuscarora. As a practical matter, that means allowing kids who won’t change clothes to play anyway. “We work with the kids,” Putterman added. Instructors at A.D. Henderson permit some kids to use the locker room earlier, ahead of the crowd. They also put an adult in the locker room to preempt any bullying. “We accommodate kids who are awkward,” Childs told me.

They offer competitive and non-competitive games. Rather than throw aggressive athletes in with reluctant participants, the PE instructors at A.D. Henderson offer everyone the chance to choose between intense and relaxed play. Thus, kids who want to go hard at the game can compete against other gung-ho players, while those who prefer a relaxed and fun approach can participate with similarly mellow students. Childs said that the stigma around PE has persisted in part because the kids who relish gym class growing up are more apt to become physical education instructors as adults; they naturally assume that all kids enjoy aggressive play. More students will benefit from regular exercise if athletic departments find ways to reach kids who balk at competition.

We don’t use fitness as a punishment,” Childs said. Sentencing the tardy student to three laps around the field won’t teach kids that exercise can be enjoyable. Students start moving as soon as they’ve changed clothes and teachers take attendance while kids walk the gym’s perimeter. Some kids use pedometers to measure their distance. At GALS, girls are taught that physical activity is central to life, and that anyone with a body is an athlete.

They focus on relationships. At Tuscarora, PE instructors strive to know the students personally. “They’re the most personable people in the building,” a 12th grader there said. Students at GALS relish morning movement because the teachers participate with the girls. “We don’t just talk about it, we’re a part of it,” Worbetz said.

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