P.E. Circa 1983: The Way We Were, The Way We Need To Be

Editor’s Note: The following essay is based on part I of a two-part national study on the changing role of physical education in schools, and its link to mental health. After reading the piece, please consider participating in part II via a short survey (click here to participate anonymously). Results will be published in the Berkeley Research Health Review.

We come of age on ball diamonds that smell like freshly mowed grass and grape Italian ice, and in YMCA basketball gyms with those sandy floors and metal bleachers with spearmint stuck beneath the seats. There are those moments you snap a picture and you see Andy, that kid with orange hair tearing the ball away from his own teammate–your son–prompting your wife to politely yell, “Same team!” ofalls3r there’s Kim tangling her hair, Raymond tying his cleats as the ball rolls by, and little Stevie laying on the field swallowing his own snots. There’s gramma knitting a scarf, grampa yelling profanities at some kid to tag up, and Uncle Pete getting sucked into playing monkey in the middle with the cousins.

This is youth sports. Played on Saturday mornings inside old Church halls and between horse barns, where the little girl who used to suck her thumb and eat sand in the playground behind home plate is now striking out boys, or that kid who crapped through his diaper all the way up to his neck every Sunday at Church is now leading a fast break.

For some reason, though, the best moments and lessons from youth sports–the camaraderie and hilarity, the community and competition–failed to find a home in schools. 1,377 school administrators in our reader poll this month said physical education needs help and is one of their top 3 priorities in 2016-17. That’s 85% of the 1,612 polled, a staggering number when you consider the just 11% who said PE was a priority just 2 years ago.

This seismic shift makes sense, as principals in both primary and secondary schools see a surge of support to use physical education as a means to address behavioral issues, reduce violence risk, increase test scores and, in their own way, promote mental health. Call it the Sandy Hook factor or link it to the growing rate of teen suicide due to bullying. The reasons for the attention matter less than the attention physical education is getting broadly, and from whom.

But then again, HOW schools implement physical education reform is another issue entirely. More than two-thirds in the poll will take a Band-Aid approach by adding more gym days or PE time, admitting that they are unsure if the extra time will change the ‘bullying’ culture and uncertain if changes would bring them ‘into compliance’ with national standards. Others are more inventive.

At Westview High School in San Diego students have started using smartphones to scan bar codes on worksheets to gain access to a YouTube video during a tumbling exercise. This is gym class circa 2015, an example of educators looking for ways to implement common core standards into physical education to address bullying, behavioral issues, and student presenteeism.

So maybe I’m wrong, but I think educators have it backwards: if it were me, physical education–the roots of it anyways–ought to be built into the common core.


You see when I grew up, the only thing common about gym was the sheer amount of sweat we’d collect in 30 minutes dodging rubber balls or racing Mr. Hauk on those little scooters while Ms. J pegged us with foam balls and Duran Duran’s “The Reflex” blared on the Panasonic BoomBox we dusted off from the school janitor’s closet. It was heavy nerf artillery during a leg and core workout. It was very ’80s. On rainy days, we used trash barrels for basketball hoops, hula hoops as frisbees, and Campbell’s soup cans as throwing targets. We would play the teachers in football on the green at lunch and wrap old pillows around our younger brothers’ knees during a recess street hockey game. The so-called school bully Lenny Dupee and school jock Donny Wilmot would team up to score the game winner in a bowling war. We’d leave gym class together – not as cliques but as comrades in competition, bonded from leg bruises and jammed fingers, sweaty hair and greasy mustaches. Everyone tried, everyone competed and we’d walk out of the locker room as winners and sometimes losers, but–regardless–satisfied for having had the chance to play.

So forgive me when I roll my eyes at the use of smart phones during gym. I’m a product of PE – heck dad was a college tennis and hoops coach who used mom’s Dr. Seuss books as bases for wiffle ball games with his teams. We were creative and competitive and played hard and frankly that is exactly what the physical education movement needs.

There are signs of hope at both a local and national level. Of late, just in my own home state, there are small and large examples emerging of schools and teachers and community groups bringing play back to the school yard.

In Wethersfield, a principal gets to school 30 minutes early to play basketball against, well, the entire 3rd grade. It’s chaotic at times and is admittedly less about standards, but there’s plenty of substance as these 8-year-olds march into first period.

At the YMCA, 4 and 5 year olds smaller than the Spaulding in their hands, try to dribble and bounce pass through hula hoops and other obstacles held up by their older siblings, learning at an early age that movement trumps technique.

In Hartford, Grace Academy Middle School students play tennis in a small auditorium with old wooden Chrissy Evert rackets, foam balls and cafeteria tables as nets. Pink blares on the ipod for nearly the entire 1 hour after school matches, with games ending as songs end. There are winners and losers and champions – but, as 14-year-old Angelica Cornejal said after a close loss last spring, ‘it’s fun and competitive,’ and albeit a bit unusual, it reminds me of those rainy gym classes with Mr. Hauk and Ms. J. Since instituting the daily program, Grace student GPAs, attendance and health have increased dramatically, particularly for a subset of students whose families migrated to the US in 2007 from war-torn Burma and Thailand refugee camps.

The school has connected these students to volunteers and advocates who support them with a mix social services, health advocacy, sports team coaching, and tutoring, offered through a start-up called the Migrant Family Behavioral Health Network, which relies on volunteers.  In the 5 months following the start of the program, ER visit utilization—once common for a host of asthma, depression, and primary care reasons—disappeared, as did school absences. More than 80% of the students had achieved a GPA above 3.0 and two years later 90% made the honor roll at private, independent high schools, and earned their way on freshman sports teams. ‘In a time when many schools are cutting out physical education, we made sure that every student played every day,’ says Matthew Fitzsimons, principal and co-founder. ‘It’s played a part in their overall self-esteem and confidence and changed the trajectory of their life.’

Other programs are more sports centric but having similar impact. One of the more interesting new models is 2-4-1 Sports, a nationally recognized sports-centric program for kids who believe ‘life’s 2 short for just 1 sport’, hence the name. Former collegiate athletes Steve and Kerry Boyle initiated a before, during and after-school program designed to bring structured play and physical literacy back into schools. From the group’s patented classroom Brainergizers to a curriculum that stresses movement, fun and creative competition, the program is meant to support PE and health teachers with before and/or after-school play.

2-4-1 is part of the Growing Great Schools non-profit focused on wellness and its 2-4-1 P.L.U.S.S. initiative (Physical Literacy Using Sports Sampling) has tapped into what so many school system administrators, policy leaders and even healthcare leaders embrace. Michael Yanuck, a medical director and board certified family physician from Florida, believes in more physical education investment to address a host of health complications, from eating disorders to diabetes to suicide to violence.


For educators and parents – and also the broader healthcare community – there is an emerging responsibility to ensure our kids have the opportunity to cope and succeed particularly as they move into their pre-teen and teenage years, a period when they face a lot of obstacles, like earlier school start times and text message bullying. Obstacles are magnified in some school districts that are dealing with budget constraints and limited physical education during or even outside of school hours and–for the first time in a student’s young life–limited playing time or no playing time at all on their sports teams. It’s a weird feeling sitting on the bench and by high school, as many as three-quarters in our poll of 250 parents in 23 U.S. states said that their son or daughter stopped playing organized sports after becoming disenchanted with the process for selecting a team or playing time. 31% of those parents whose kids dropped out of sports said their child has also been dealing with depression or other behavioral conditions since.

Part of the problem is there’s so much emphasis as early as elementary school on ‘developing’ young athletes for making their high school or college teams when the reality is many, check that most won’t make those rosters and what we maybe ought to focus on is developing a love of just playing – competing, yes. Winning, absolutely, but above all, playing hard – from young to old.

It’s one thing to be cut from a team but quite another to see a student walk away from athletics entirely and be left with no competitive outlet and limited physical activity at a time when they need it most, Dr. Yanuck says.

Of the schools surveyed with what they describe as insufficient physical education or sports time, it’s sadly ironic that 71% of them said nursing staff and hours with students dealing with depression, weight and body image issues, and more challenging clinical concerns including ‘thoughts about suicide’ have “been increasing.”

Whether there is a link is difficult for a lot of communities to make; still, it doesn’t seem to me to be the sort of common core experience we want for our kids and their kids.

To share your views and experiences, as educators, school administrators and parents, take a moment to participate in part II of our study on health and physical education in the school system.

Click here to share your view



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