We need a paradigm shift in American physical education…sooner than later.
There was a time when American physical education was student focused. Individual children and children organized in groups were taught to both move and think well “through” physical education classes taught by dedicated classroom teachers as well as professional physical education teachers. These were the days when teachers thought critically about student engagement, classroom time management efficiency, safety of movement with children, the whole development of a child to produce a more balanced person and a better citizen…it was all there with its roots in ancient Greece…and all this with “just” PE classes!
So why do we need to return to some classical values and ideas such as brilliantly displayed in the above educational film by the University of Iowa in 1956? Let me start with a personal story that just happened yesterday in my own city during my workout. Afterwards, let’s discuss what you will see and learn in the film–because it’s a bright light illuminating today’s physical education and fitness out of the fog as the profession gropes for something worth doing.
One of my favorite exercise choices this year has been to run some outdoor stair repeats. There are some amazing stairs near my home built off the back of a hillside home development. There are over 150 concrete stairs in multiple flights. I have never been to these stairs when there were not other people there exercising. ALL kinds of people–young, old, male, female, athletic, obese, moving well, barely walking…everyone goes and participates. This place has good chi. I can feel it.
Yesterday while running, I looked over to see a young boy about age 10. It was very hot here yesterday with high humidity. Challenging conditions even for mid morning. The young lad was obese. He was sitting off to the side in the hot sun with a bottle of water. I could feel him watching me. I looked at him and smiled. I started to ask him if he wanted to walk some stairs with me, but then thought maybe his parents would not want him to exercise in the heat so left it to rest…
I was running down my final set of warm up steps when I noticed the little boy had gotten up and walked over to the bottom where everyone turns around. He gently asked me with intent and true interest, “What are you doing today?” This was my opening. It was not forced. The interest and interaction between us at two human beings was natural and organic. I explained that my general process was to run single steps up to the top without getting in a hurry. I did this five times for rhythm and warm up then I would just take one flight and do double steps but harder for ten rounds. That was my general workout foundation at the steps. He liked that then said, “My Dad is on the fruitopian diet; have you heard about it?” I replied, “Yes. I have heard about it.” True, I know all fruit diets have lots of limitations regarding macro nutrient balance and blood sugar balance, but this was not the place to get into it. I kept my approach soft and let him speak. He went on to say his Dad had lost 14 pounds so far, and he was thinking about going on this diet too. We talked about how healthy it was to eat fruit. He made a comment about how God created fruit and it must be good to eat. I added, “Yes, and fruit is not made in a laboratory!” We laughed. He got it.
So how does all of this relate to “physical education” currently and the history of PE and why we need a PE Paradigm Shift?
This obese boy is a failure by current PE methods. Most PE today is sport based and competitive or simply not structured to include all learners. Put this kid into the standard lazy PE warm up of “just run a lap,” and he is immediately selected as the fat kid at the back of the pack. Throw him into many sport activities requiring speed, agility, and quickness with competitive drive that is unchecked by PE teachers today who are too often not teaching but playing on their phones or working on sport team practice plans, and good luck with this kid regarding being treated well socially and feeling good about himself in movement.
Over 15 years ago, I had the honor and privilege to administer a large community grant from Kaiser Permanente that provided PE funding to four inner-city schools. Many of the schools had high poverty and soaring high child obesity. The very first thing I did with my programming was to change the PSYCHOLOGY of how the “PE” and “fitness” lessons were delivered. I had to provide a massive paradigm shift in delivery. The students were set up for success. What did I learn? For the very first time in their lives, many of these obese children were allowed and supported to feel good about their bodies in motion. Gone was the embarrassment and immediate shame of being “in the back” during the warm ups. Gone were the jocks picking on the fat kids. Gone was isolation of young students who were not treated professionally by lazy PE teachers. I took control and advocated for children putting them first in PE–not last.
The bottom line about the stairs story is this–this little boy is ready to learn. His heart is open to being healthy, fit, a good citizen, and being with the group–not behind it in isolation. The last few minutes, the boy went off the side and took off his shirt. I always run without my shirt in the summer. It’s what I have done since high school. He was over there shirtless where people would not notice him. I could feel this kid. He wants it. He needs a PE teacher–a REAL PE teacher…sooner than later. We parted that day by me saying I enjoyed our conversation and that I would see him next time. He said maybe…I said I hope so.
“Physical Education for the Primary Grades: A Film for Teachers Demonstrating the Best Use of Activity Time”
The educational film above is one of my best finds ever! It’s a fascinating look back into classical PE in the mid 1950s when we still had our gymnastic roots while also valuing the virtues of educational discovery through free play and movement exploration. What is very intriguing is that the PE class was taught by a classroom teacher. It always amazes me how teachers in general had high levels of physical literacy in many schools and also understand how the physical education of a child increased learning capacity and quality…a critical point not being understood by today’s educators–and even many of our own PE teachers!
Pay careful attention in the film to the following points:
- Outdoor Activity: Classical PE systems included the outdoors–some more than others. The “Natural Method” of Georges Hebert in France during the early 1900s would be an excellent example of outdoor focus during PE. Many of these classical PE systems specifically included camping, hiking, and very robust outdoor physical labors like chopping wood, setting up camps, etc. There are amazing benefits just to being outside! Out and away from artificial lights and filtered air supplies with minimal clothing comforts to fully acclimate to conditions. The wisdom of the past is clear regarding the values of outdoor exercise and activities.
- Gymnastics & Acrobatics: Our roots of medical and orthopedic gymnastics were still in place during this era. You can clearly see the influence of German, Swedish, French, and other immigrant systems that came into America and helped form the physical education in our schools during the mid to late 1800s.
- Gravity: An important part of classical PE with its roots in gymnastics was the knowledge and use of gravity “off ground” training which was brilliantly displayed in the Iowa film. I was pleased to see the regressions for younger children like the very low rope climb, different levels of boxes, lower levels of bars, etc.
- Safety: The “regressions” above were for safety of movement. Safety was a big deal in classical PE programs. There was not this reckless abandonment for HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) madness we see too often today that causes joint damage to children (and adults) without the movement skills to handle it. Tools and methods were adapted for optimal learning and enhanced safety of movement.
- Spotting: Directly related to safety, the scene of the boy spotting the girl during the headstand was another nice example of classical PE where spotting was a major factor. You learn a lot as a spotter. Safety, paying attention to detail, applying your knowledge of position to help someone else, and in this example–also social skills. As you place your hands on someone else and especially the opposite gender-how you touch them respectfully is important. These were all skills that were taught in the better classical PE programs.
- Music & Art Appreciation: Notice how movement was blended into using musical instruments and theatre arts in the classroom play. Understand that “classical” PE was multi-disciplinary. It was NOT just physique focused on six pack abs! It included support of libraries, music, artistic expression of movement, physics, math, and yes…history and more.
- Labor Engineering: This was an old concept out of classical PE all but lost today where we buy everything, but back in the day, people actually built a lot of their own equipment. This was often done by not only school shop instructors but also with the help of local parents and business owners, etc. The process of making things by hand creates an increased appreciation for the apparatus.
- Foot Fitness: It also amazes me to see such an important focus on feet in the historical PE systems. The whole foot fitness and barefoot thing is nothing new–just recycled. Feet are important. Watch the instruction on carefully landing the box jumps on forefeet to soften impact forces on knees and spine–jumping “down” was carefully taught as opposed to just jumping up as with much of the current instruction in fitness and PE.
- Classroom & Time Management: One cannot help but be amazed at the sheer efficiency of the classical PE systems. Even the games demonstrated were carefully organized so as to include the most amount of children active as possible. Again, the whole “standing around in PE” issue is not new–they were addressing this decades ago–successfully by engaging the learners in ACTIVELY!
- Kinesthetic Bodily Awareness: People often tell me kids cannot do that today. BS! They need to be taught! How can we expect a child to understand movement and personal space if we force them to sit at a desk all day? You learn nothing about managing your body. The film portrayed amazing levels of dynanmic activity where the children were in close proximity to each other. They were taught control of movement in a group setting. They had true movement skills–even in K-6 grades. Children “can do it” they are just not being taught today.
- Group Cooperation & Unity: If you want the real “no child left behind” look back to classical PE designs like portrayed in this film. It’s not a new idea, but rather, a classical idea that was promoted through physical education–not just in the academic classrooms with testing. From the way the children helped set up their own PE equipment to the way they were instructed to get along and play well together–it was designed and implemented with intent for a noble purpose, group unity, full inclusion, and acceptance with team support.
Paradigm shift. We need to change our thinking about PE then change our actions.
We need REAL PE TEACHERS with full degrees, teaching credentials, cross-cultural literacy, and cross-curriculum proficiency who can not only teach fitness through PE but also reading literacy, history, physics, music and art appreciation, and so many others areas that were formerly taught “though” quality physical education. We also need proactive parents who model health and fitness at home along with fitness professionals who can provide support outside of school settings.
Don’t leave the little boy behind at the stairs. He needs PE more than ever.