PE: Literacy For The Body
The dawn breaks on cool, misty morning. Awakened by hunger, a young man gathers his tribe. The winter is coming and they must hunt for boar meat and hides. He instructs the tribe’s children to gather nuts and grains, while the adults start out into the forest, eager for the chase. Despite the stakes, no one is afraid. There is a sense of vitality and life to the moment. All of them have a mission. They all contribute to the whole. It’s as if each person was made for this moment.
In fact, they were. That is the point. We were all made to live and thrive in situations such as these. This is what our minds and bodies were programmed to do, and it’s the job that constitutes the bulk of human history. Our hearts were meant to compassionately work for the benefit of a group. Our bodies were meant to chase, flee, climb, fight, and play.
It is our digression from these most natural inclinations that has led to mental and physical imbalance. When we learn to respect the body for what it was made to be, we can begin to realize our true potential. A nation that does not respect and value the body and natural human movement cannot thrive, as poor health and the malaise of partial living will plague its people.
Physical Education Is a Core Curriculum
“No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.”
Physical education (PE) will be the backbone of a movement to create a heroic nation that will confidently tackle challenges with creative solutions and inspire the world. Yes, PE.
Your perception of PE might be the “easy A” for your child. Maybe you even see it as a waste of time. Why should kids spend valuable time out of the school day in PE when it’s untested, holds little weight on college applications, and leads to few job opportunities? There’s so much information to learn, so why waste time kicking a soccer ball? Some have even advocated scrapping physical education altogether, arguing that 40 minutes twice a week of exercise makes no difference.
This limited worldview has dominated our school structure, to the detriment of our children and our society. One of the fundamental roadblocks to progress for our country is our emphasis on the immediate outcome rather than the process and end goal. If a teacher is “easy” and does not challenge the students, they’re far less likely to elicit a hailstorm of parent criticism, because they are no threat to a child’s GPA. Never mind teaching them skills of analysis, synthesis, or lessons of persistence and discipline.
Far too often, we miss the goal of education: to help our students grow so that they are prepared for the world, inspired to live vitally and do great work, and guided by an ethos of contribution and empathy for their fellow man. Education should positively direct the path of our nation. When we clarify our intent and vision of public education, it becomes clear that PE can play a far more prominent role in the development of our youth. Physical education is the most important component for greater results in education and our national culture. To borrow from the current vernacular, nothing could be a more “core” curriculum.
Physical Health Enables Cognitive Learning
“When health is absent, wisdom cannot reveal itself, art cannot manifest, strength cannot fight, wealth becomes useless, and intelligence cannot be applied.”
Health and physical education are essential foundations from which everything else blossom. But if you ask most people, they would probably say the role of schools is to get students to pass standardized tests and learn information so they can go to college. This shortsighted, uninspiring vision has created a stagnant, public-image driven system that perpetuates a progressive decline in physical and mental health.
We must tenaciously fight for a new vision. Our education system should create heroes. Core to that vision of heroism are the physical strength, endurance, and vitality to protect and help others. PE is where the change must start, because movement is where all learning starts. Cognitive development is deeply rooted in physical development. We cannot separate the two, despite the industrial approach of most schools, where students are fed information while strapped to a desk. The learning potential of the brain is far higher when the body is nourished and physically vital. Meeting the need of children for physical activity creates far more attentive students capable of greater focus and mental acuity.
Physical health enables cognitive learning, but many schools continue to eliminate recess anyway. [Photo credit: Pedro Dias | CC BY 2.0]
We Teach Kids to Be Unhealthy
“The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.”
We have the highest standard of living in the history of the world, but we also have lifestyles of unprecedented sedentarism. After our kids sit all day at school, they’re likely to go home and sit while they watch TV, play video games, and text. Consequently, they are chronically anxious, epidemically unhealthy, and projected to live shorter lives than their parents. The US Department of Health and Human Services advises a minimum 60 minutes per day of physical activity for kids aged 6-17. Shouldn’t we do everything in our power to ensure each student gets that minimal essential dose on a daily basis?
All of us have one body to use for our entire life. Seeking mastery in the health and operation of this one vessel is of the utmost value to each. Yet we criminally restrict the playful, active proclivity of youth. Every natural inclination pushes them to run, to chase, to play, to move, and yet we label them with mental disorders when they struggle to sit still for seven hours straight. Recess is being eliminated, despite evidence that free play builds cognitive development and creativity. Even when we do offer health and PE, the lack of emphasis surrounding each has created a product that is a joke. Kids are allowed to sit in the stands and text or study for another class instead of playing with the others. Health class has deteriorated to a few warning videos and vague scientific memorization delivered with little application or hope of changing anything.
Before you blame teachers, understand they are part of a system that has consistently devalued their work and lowered the standards. They, like most teachers I know, are usually hardworking, uplifting leaders. The impact PE and health teachers can make is limited when their class is only required for one semester, and even then, only for those students not in extra-curricular activities.
The Consequences of Neglecting PE
"We should resolve now that the health of this nation is a national concern; that financial barriers in the way of attaining health shall be removed; that the health of all its citizens deserves the help of all the nation.”
–Harry S. Truman
Schools must begin to develop the whole person. Academic rigor alone does not a leader make. For our young men and women to be the best students, leaders, and people they can be, they must make their own health and vitality a top priority. Despite the clear importance, our youth have little to no emphasis put on physical education and health. Many states have zero required health and PE classes throughout high school. Only Nevada, New York, and New Jersey require more than two years of health and PE combined, while most are well under that.
The consequences of this deemphasis are a lack of resources and pitifully low expectations in these fields. Working with youth, I’m amazed by what little knowledge of health and wellness they have to draw on. Few know the differences in macronutrients or where to find quality sources of each. Fewer know how to cook anything, particularly anything with nutritional value. If you encourage them to bring a healthy snack, they’ll likely choose a chewy granola bar or fruit snacks. Encourage omelets and oatmeal for breakfast, and you’ll be met with confused stares. Breakfast is a Pop-Tart or nothing. Sometimes a proud young man will let me know he got a bowl of Cheerios. Try talking about pre-competition nutrition, and a glazed-over face might finally interrupt you with “is Chick-fil-A good?”
These young adults, like their parents before them, will grow up and raise the next generation dominated by convenience food, chronically unbalanced, and deficient in health. The consequences are dire. Global obesity trends indicate 268 million kids will be overweight by 2025, 4 million will have type 2 diabetes, and 27 million will have hypertension. Who knows what other psychological and social consequences will arise from this crisis? There is no greater national threat, and education is where we must make the change.
A New Core Curriculum
“Intelligence and skill can only function at the peak of their capacity when the body is healthy and strong. In this sense, physical activity is the basis for all activities of our society.”
–John F. Kennedy
Despite considerably different national challenges, and though occupations and lifestyles have met considerable change, the structure of the school day has changed little from the industrial model of over 150 years ago. 20-30 students are packed into small classrooms. They are fed information a mile wide and an inch deep, in efforts to pass standardized tests and meet outdated curriculum requirements.
The emphasis is on math, science, English, and social studies. All these are fantastic, rich subjects that may contribute to the success of a student’s life. Certainly, there is a need for mastery of foundational mathematic, scientific, and English skills. But by secondary education, critical skills should already be mastered, making this gauntlet hardly essential to the lives of all. A child with a propensity for a future in engineering might, after exposure to freshman-level social studies and reading, wisely alter their school track to focus on more pertinent science and mathematics classes. Likewise, the future geologist or cultural anthropologist may want to opt out of sophomore and up mathematics.
Our society has evolved, but our education system hasn't changed substantially in over a century. [Photo credit: Michael 1952 | CC BY 2.0]
If a student gains little value and just scrapes by to keep the GPA up, what real benefit is the class? Is there any purpose to a class that does not create change in how students live or perceive the world? If the student retains nothing and thinks as they did before, we’ve wasted a giant opportunity at the cost of far more essential education.
By the time our youth reach high school, our core curriculum becomes so broad that it is not core to anyone. We are missing those subjects that are truly essential to everyone: computer literacy, financial health, physical and psychological health, and written and oral communications skills. These subjects should not just be available, as they are now. They should be the new core, expanded upon in depth and infused with time and resources. When examining the cost-benefit of each subject to each student, these are the foundational secondary education subjects critical to future success. These are the subjects that will add value to every citizen, and none is as indispensable as a strong, developed physical education and health curriculum.
An Education in Health
“Lack of activity destroys the good condition of every human being, while movement and methodical physical exercise save it and preserve it.”
We’ve forgotten that understanding and mastering our physical bodies is one of the most important aspects of each person’s life. It has the potential to inspire optimism, passion, and creativity. PE and health should have more support, emphasis, and attention than any other subject, as the mastery of one’s body and mind will enhance and heighten the potential of every other arena. Early and wide exposure should be given to many pleasurable activities and skills. Each day, youth should run and jump. They should be taught to develop proprioception, core strength, and fundamental movement patterns. Upper level PE should offer a variety of tracks guided by the interest of each student, while still ensuring general physical preparedness. School sports teams should model healthy practices, rather than being a never-ending carousel of pre- and post-game sweets for each athlete.
Classrooms should feature standing desks and encourage breaks for physical activity. Health classes should teach kids mental health skills and the mechanics of habit formation, willpower, focus, and trained optimism. Health teachers should make challenges surrounding steps in a day, or least sodas in a week. They should create projects surrounding grocery store trips and building healthy meals. Other subjects should incorporate and respect this emphasis on an active, healthy human. Excel classes, for instance, could use sports statistics or physical assessment results of each classmate.
Physical Education and the National Ethos
“Leave all the afternoon for exercise and recreation, which are as necessary as reading. I will rather say more necessary because health is worth more than learning.”
Overhauling our core curriculum to emphasize physical education and health would have far-reaching benefits to our nation. This overhaul should be guided by the philosophy that we aim to create a nation of heroes. Having more physical activity will improve analytical skills and academic performance, but this does not scratch the surface of its benefit. The most glaring reason we should shift to this focus is that it is the right thing to do. Health is of greater consequence than learning.
The quotes included in this article could have written the article by themselves. There is a virtual consensus on the importance of health among history’s wisest and most learned. These creative giants all saw the imperative of physical education and health. Let us heed their advice and allow ourselves to investigate how we might revitalize our system. This vision will improve the quality of life for everyone. It is a context that can be built upon to create a heroic national ethos. In embracing this vision, we clarify a mission and a purpose for future generations, and give them the tools to chase their dreams.
Gym class shouldn't be random games: