A Heroic Nation’s P.E. Curriculum

The solution to the health crisis that plagues our country lies in how we teach our children to be healthy.

Our nation’s greatest need is so simple it would almost hit you over the head. Epidemic levels of obesity and disease from sedentary lifestyles have gone hand in hand with a consistent trend towards less movement in our schools.

Our nation’s greatest need is so simple it would almost hit you over the head. Epidemic levels of obesity and disease from sedentary lifestyles have gone hand in hand with a consistent trend towards less movement in our schools.

We allow kids less free play, less recess, deemphasize physical education and health, and allow their lives to be centered around TV, social media, and video games. The dire consequences are a vastly overmedicated population, rising health costs, anxiety in record proportion, and a nation where nearly every citizen struggles with weight or health issues.

Facing such a pandemic, it’s truly insane not to promote health in schools. But instead, our schools continue to reflect the insidious and ingrained poor health practices of our nation. While a billion steps are necessary to correct the overall problem, the most obvious is to ensure that our youth move and play.

The more they learn to value movement, play, and exercise, the better off they’ll be. Additionally, we must consistently teach good health habits to counter the culture of junk food which permeates the country.

How can we ignore the consistent, rising tide of destructive health habits when a simple solution stares us right in the face? Make physical education and health top priorities in our schools, and these issues resolve themselves while academics and character improve.

Protect Our Most Valuable Asset

“The best asset we have for making a contribution to the world is ourselves. If we underinvest in ourselves… we damage the very tool we need for making our highest contribution.”

Greg McKeown

Health must be our schools’ top value. It should permeate every subject, and the training of a heroic nation will be the context which packages this delivery and expectation. In line with this ethos must be an intentional emphasis on physical education and health as the most core of core subjects. What schools must understand is that without healthy minds and bodies, all pursuits are limited, and one can never reach their deepest potential.

In Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown tells the story of a young CEO who pushed himself so hard that his body began to revolt. He began to have what he described as “anxiety attacks without the anxiety.” Eventually, his organs began to shut down one by one. Doctors told him to take 2 years off, or he might die.

This man stubbornly predicted he’d be back after 2 months, but soon saw just how out of balance his life had become. He took the 2 years, changed his diet, drastically reduced stress, and returned a changed man. When asked what he’d learned from his ordeal, he said he’d “paid a high price to learn a simple yet essential lesson: Protect the asset!”

Despite being a CEO, the embodiment of what schools strive to develop, this man sacrificed health and was forced to give everything up in order to rediscover it. It’s a haunting tale that highlights what is truly essential: our health.

This brings us back to Christopher McDougall’s definition of a hero as a protector. To create a nation of heroes, we must first take the heroic step of making our youth’s number one priority to “protect the asset” in their own life. No longer can this be a fringe characteristic of the “fitness fanatic” or “health nut.” It’s truly the only logical path for a loving nation to take.

The Minimum Dose of Movement

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.”

George Bernard Shaw

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend at least 60 minutes per day of physical activity. This is the minimum daily requirement for the hope of health. Habits create health, and the nation’s predominant health habits could hardly be worse.

Physical inactivity alone is the fourth leading risk factor for death worldwide. Even with the best nutrition practices, lack of movement is deadly. Most kids sit between 10 and 14 hours per day, much of that time being forced to sit in school.

We must guarantee our youth at least that minimum 60 minutes of daily movement. We see youth whose physical bodies are frailer than any generation before, and who lack the mental toughness necessary to overcome the obstacles which undoubtedly come to all humans. Physical education and health must become the foundation on which our education systems are built. But what do these systems look like?

Work With Natural Inclinations to Play

“Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold.”

– Joseph Chilton Pearce

It’s just not that complicated: We need to move and play much more. At the elementary age, when many essential skills are being taught, kids might only need organized physical education three days a week. But on a daily basis, they should have at least three 20-minute recesses interspersed.

Since the 1970s, youth have seen a 50% decrease in their unstructured outdoor play time. Among first graders, 39% get 20 minutes or less of recess each day. Promoting free play and accepting the nature of the elementary age is essential to a healthy nation and a successful elementary school. At this age, their bodies revolt at the idea of prolonged sitting. Allowing 20-minute active breaks for free play and creativity each hour is essential.

Dr. Jane Hewes, Chair of the Early Childhood Education Program at Grant MacEwan College has written much about the formative role of free play. She insists it is possibly the most fundamental ingredient for socialization, as well as physical, emotional, and intellectual development. She goes so far as to link certain types of play with the specific cognitive abilities they develop.

Play is learning. Kids are natural scientists, experimenting on the world and constantly refining their understanding of how it works. One Fort Worth school began offering recess 4 times a day. While initially anxious about the negative effects on academics, teachers have been overwhelmed by the positive results.

Discipline issues are way down, students are far more attentive and cooperative, and autonomy has even gone up, as students are more likely to try to solve their own problems. All this from paying attention to the nature of youth and working in cooperation with it, rather than in conflict with natural inclinations for movement, experimentation, and play.

Hero Lessons in P.E.

“The secret of success is consistency of purpose.”

Benjamin Disraeli

Physical education at this age should expose children to many organized games and sports, so that kids can find physical pursuits they grow to love. Clear values of teamwork, selflessness, consistent effort, sportsmanship, and physical toughness should be taught and modeled daily.

This should be the workshop where youth begin their mental training, as process mindsets and growth mindsets are groomed through daily teachable moments. Competition is a beautiful thing, and when approached correctly, brings out people’s best efforts.

All schools must accept the mission of creating heroic citizens who are exposed to daily reminders of their duty for empathy towards others. Each physical education class should begin with a lesson on a heroic value.

This should be followed by 5 to 10 minutes of structured exercises or skill drills, then structured games or sports. At the end, short lessons should be given on the role of proper nutrition in creating strong bodies and healthy minds.

Nutrition and health as an independent element of the curriculum need not begin until after elementary school. At the elementary age, it should be interwoven into all subjects and modeled throughout the school day. This model will be far more powerful and hold more weight at the elementary age than any assignment could.

Structure in Middle School

“A healthy state can exist only when the men and women who make it up lead clean, vigorous, healthy lives; when the children are so trained that they will endeavor, not to shirk difficulties, but to overcome them; not to seek ease, but to know how to wrest triumph from toil and risk.”

Theodore Roosevelt

During the defiant, transitional period of middle school, P.E. should remain quite structured. Youth at this age need physical movement as much as any, but also must have structure or quickly risk anarchy.

Three days a week, classes should begin with a dynamic warm-up, then feature 20 to 30 minutes of bodyweight circuits and gymnastics. This can be followed by sprints or structured sports and sport skills, and finished with stretching. Two days a week, class should begin with the same warm-up, but feature more free-flowing games and challenges.

Games like tag variations, capture the flag, ultimate Frisbee, and dodgeball variations are playful and accessible to the novice. Sports should be taught in units throughout the year and progress from heavy coaching and teaching early in a unit, to more all-out play later. Sport subjects should include basketball, volleyball, flag football, soccer, and handball.

Education in Natural Movement

“Embrace the wisdom of your inner child. A little nonsense now and then is cherished by the wisest of men.”

Roald Dahl

As our youth get to middle and high school, health and physical education must become daily staples and the most core subjects. Physical education must start with an understanding of natural human movement. The goal of physical education should be humans who are able to move, play, and operate like humans would in nature.

French physical education pioneer Georges Herbert developed his “Natural Method” of training from watching human movement, particularly that of youth. His fascinating conclusions were that when kids played, they were training to be heroes, as all their play was “role playing disaster scenarios.”

When left to free play, children would “run, wrestle, hide, roll around, kick-fight with their feet, and leap off anything they can climb.” This ingenious natural programming at once displays the absurdities of our early childhood education, as well as the best methods for natural training. Herbert divided “natural training” into 3 menus:

  • Pursuit—walk, run, crawl
  • Escape—climb, balance, jump, swim
  • Attack—throw, lift, fight

It is these abilities which we usually begin to lose in high school, and that we must foster and maintain even into our late lives. While walking is overly mild, and overt fighting a bit too much for P.E. classes, those in-between skills should be daily staples. An obstacle course must be developed on each campus that serves as the standardized assessment and uniting experience for all physical education.

As our nation trends toward disconnected overspecialization in everything from sports to our jobs, it is essential that we maintain these natural abilities. Even high school athletics must be balanced by quarterly obstacle courses and team challenges which convert physical fitness into displays of broad and diverse athleticism. Think of it as a physical manifestation of the term paper.

Diversity in High School

“I live in possibility.”

Emily Dickinson

By high school, there should be great variety in class offerings, all at a greater depth and sophistication. Athletic training should be offered to any student who wants a more intense physical development experience geared at training for sports.

Joe Kenn provides an ideal model for this training with his tier system. The freshman introduction phase to this system should begin with Kenn’s block 0 model for beginning strength training.

Qualified CSCS’s should be hired at all schools to implement athletic strength classes. Other P.E. offerings should range from gymnastics, to swimming, to outdoor sports and survival training, to martial arts, to an experience-based course on methods of personal training.

The number and variety of classes is only limited by a school’s resources. Course offerings should also be guided by geography, with additions like hockey in Minnesota, or lacrosse in Baltimore.

A general continuation of the middle school model for P.E. should be offered. This will emphasize general physical preparation with exposure to safe, simple strength training, running at a variety of distances and intensities, stretching, and a continued emphasis on exposure to sports and games. All P.E. classes, including the athletic training classes, should continue to incorporate daily warm-up and cool down activities, and should include some degree of play.

How to Grade P.E.

“Keep your eye on the spirit, not the scoreboard.”

Phil Jackson

The standard of success for a physical education program should be based on a few distinct criteria. We must not view P.E. with the same lens we would an algebra class. Emphasis should be placed on the process.

While rigor should be higher in academic curricula such as health classes, P.E. should be a place where all may experience great success. Options must be available to accommodate all perspectives, from those seeking great physical mastery and skill, to those seeking general physical enjoyment.

What is important is that each of our youth set goals for their physical education, display understanding of the values of heroism, and adhere to the expectations of punctuality, proper dress, cooperation, and maximum effort. Additionally, PE classes should have a citizenship element where students are required to participate in community service.

It is from these goals and expectations that grades will be assigned. While a bell curve is appropriate for typical classes, every student should be able to find success and enjoyment in their physical education.

Staffing Up for the Revolution

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Nelson Mandela

For all this to be possible will require an infusion of talent and high standards into the field of physical educators. This vision can only be successful with a cast of highly qualified and highly motivated instructors who are empowered to adapt their courses to the needs of each situation.

As this is the field which will serve as the backbone of school cultures, it is imperative that standards are set, and our best candidates are recruited. We have some extremely talented P.E. teachers right now, but could improve the field by enhancing the training and pulling from more diverse backgrounds of work.

We need greater promotion of health-related fields, and an intensification of physical and health education certification. This should become the standard for fitness certifications above those of the NSCA and NASM.

More teachers will need to be hired to increase variety and reduce student to teacher ratios. Just as we now hire specialists in biology, chemistry, or physics, we should hire physical education specialists in fields such as strength and conditioning, gymnastics, and martial arts.

Progression of Physical Education

“I wonder what the Russians are doing.”

Dan Gable

To clarify the breakdown of what is emphasized in physical education over time, I’ve created a chart similar to that used in the Soviet Union. Their physical education system is probably the best ever put together, and we would do well to copy many of the institutional habits of the Soviet school day.

For example, in the Soviet Union many schools began their day with around 10 minutes of general exercises conducted either in the school yard, auditorium, or hallways. In between classes, students took similar active breaks to refresh themselves. This model is intriguing and begs the question of how discretionary time might best be used.

I’ve split the possible P.E. activities into 4 categories:

  1. Games are characterized by active competitions that typically have a less organized format.
  2. Sports are active competitions which traditionally have been more organized, and which students could choose to play competitively. These include team sports like basketball and soccer as well as individual sports like gymnastics and karate.
  3. Strength and conditioning refers to all athletic development—everything from stretching, to sprints, to resistance training.
  4. Outdoor sports encompass everything from natural movement, to obstacle courses, to hiking, to survival skills.

Unite Behind the Vision of a Healthier Nation

“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

– George Bernard Shaw

Even among those who value this mission of change, consensus will be impossible to reach. Some will think P.E. must be tougher, and have a rigid evaluation system that promotes intense effort and focus.

Others will want P.E. to be more free-flowing as it guides students through their own exploration of health and fitness. We must remember that our vision of a stronger, healthier, more heroic America is the same. Compromise and respectful discourse must reign.

It’s impossible to predict all the challenges, and each step, while better, will be imperfect. What’s essential is that we bring a spirit of mutual respect. One of the greatest roadblocks to good educational change is lack of ability to adapt and grow. For any change to be successful long term, the vision must be clear enough to inspire dialogue and promote clarity.

Core to the vision presented in this article must be the understanding that physical vitality and health are the utmost value for our nation. Without them, none of our youth can thrive. With them, we can communicate values and character development.

How can we model fitness to our kids outside of school?

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