Physical Education Gone Missing: Can Sports Fill the Gap?

Has bullying increased as physical education has decreased?

This is the question posed to our Chinese and American panel at the ACSM convention. There has been much conversation about the reduction in physical activity among our American children, and the logical place to introduce it is as at school where kids spend so much of their time. The challenge is that kids’ schedules are packed with all the core courses, plus art, music and special offerings, along with physical education. Don’t forget lunch! There just isn’t time for daily PE that would meet the recommendation that every child get 60 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous physical activity.

The state of Virginia’s physical education requirements are 150 minutes per week on average, and that’s likely coming in 50 minute blocks, 3 times per week. Of that 50 minutes IPE class 1 am betting they’re lucky to get 20-30 minutes of vigorous activity. There is instruction and skill work, not to mention transition from class to gym or gym to field. A far cry from the daily hour of PE that was offered a generation ago, when PE seemed way less academic and way more fun. (Disclaimer: Yes, I am an academic in the fitness profession, but this came to pass because I loved to play, not because exercise was “good for me.”)

This question of bullying stops me short. Were kids nicer to each other in the old days because they were more physically active? I guess it’s possible. I always feel better about myself and others after a good workout, but I’m wondering if we’re missing something else here.

PE parachutePE used to be the great leveler in the kid zone. Everyone is equal in their gym shorts and t-shirts. Yes, some came with more physical adeptness and some with less, which was apparent on the fitness tests, but the important thing, the FUN thing to us kids, were the games: dodge ball, handball, badminton, kickball, wiffle ball, crab soccer, basketball, softball, parachute, and the list went on. We chose up teams, mixing girls and boys, the more able and less able, so things were even. Then there was one game and everyone played. Winning depended on getting the most out of every player, not just the best players. That meant that the most able players supported their weaker teammates for the good of the team. A common objective united them in a common goal.

Today in the extremely selective and overtly evaluative environment created by adults, we generally group kids by gender, age and ability. This, we tell ourselves, will create competitive match-ups and close games. Perhaps so. But among children and adolescents it also encourages comparison and a fear of not measuring up. This, heaped on their already fragile self-esteems and unsure body images, may very well be leading to bullying behavior. They do what insecure human beings everywhere do: undermine the other to make themselves look better.

Have we created our own version of the Hunger Games?

PE used to be the great leveler, and play, its community endeavor. Can sport redeem us? After all, sports, especially team sports, is not only good for physical fitness and personal health but also for social interaction and cultural health. When we segregate and separate based on ability, social status, gender or race, we deny ourselves the opportunity to learn from the other and learn about ourselves by respecting the other.

jersey exchangeCan sport redeem our society and our world?

It may seem like along shot, but the Women’s World Cup is only a week away and soccer, (a.k.a. futbol) is the one game the whole world plays – their hardest, their best, and by the same rules. Then they shake hands and exchange jerseys. We could be on to something, here!

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