The Future of Physical Education

We are at a pivotal time in public education. We know we have serious problems: other countries are lapping us academically, teachers striking, budgets being cut, and attempts at reform (a la charter schools) have been less than revolutionary. As President Obama steps into a second term with education reform in his sights, it bears asking which road that old school staple — physical education — is headed down in the coming years.

Worst Case Scenario

So that we can end on a good note, we have to start with the bad. These are the things we can basically expect in the future if we allow P.E. to continue on its present course, wherein we allow more kids to become obese and unhealthy by not taking action.

  • Fewer P.E. teachers and overcrowded P.E. sessions:

    Budget cuts have ravaged thousands of American schools, but P.E. classes and programs seem to have been particularly hard-hit. In the bad version of the future, we will double down on our belief that “one size fits all” when it comes to fitness, with one or two gym teachers trying to corral 80 or 100 kids at once. With educators spread so thin and equipment scarce, more kids will fall through the cracks or skate by by blending in with the crowd. Forget opportunities for interacting with niche sports that might stimulate an otherwise lethargic student into action and health by helping them discover a passion for a particular activity.

  • P.E. eliminated altogether:

    Phys ed is an American educational tradition that reaches back into the 19th century. But that illustrious pedigree hasn’t kept schools across the nation from cutting their programs completely, apparently seeing physical health as expendable. In the worst possible version of the future, this trend will only continue as we refuse to recognize the link between a sound mind and a sound body. The fallback plan of recess will fail us as it too continues to be trimmed or axed entirely. The onus for ensuring kids get sufficient physical activity during an average day will fall on parents or the students themselves and, this being the worst case scenario, the results will continue to be frightening.

  • Stop-gap measures for meeting phys ed requirements:

    As gym teachers are ushered out, the remaining teachers will be asked to shoulder one more burden: administering fill-in physical activities throughout the day. Programs like the “FitFun Games” in California’s Redwood City School District, where kids “wiggle” at their desks, will become the norm. Fresh air and a change of scenery will become the stuff of legends in students’ imaginations.

Promising Developments

Whew, that was depressing. Fortunately things don’t have to go down like that. We have more than enough information on the importance of P.E., and certainly we all want our next generation to be healthy and not contribute to the staggering amount of health care spending on weight-related health problems. So we have both the means and the motivation to bring about a bright tomorrow full of new developments like these. Hooray!

  • Individualization:

    All things being equal, adults would have to admit that their own fitness endeavors are much more successful when they have one-on-one access to a trainer than when they are a nameless face in the pack. Shouldn’t students be afforded the same opportunity? Save your breath decrying it as impossible — it’s already happening. Think how much more motivated to get fit kids would be with a personal trainer crafting fun and original workouts for them than an overweight old dude screaming at them to climb a rope. And if a tuition-free public school can pull it off, the future is truly promising.

  • Technology influx:

    If you think tech is not going to feature prominently in P.E. in the future, you probably thought this whole Internet thing was a fad. There’s just too much cool stuff coming out all the time for none of it to ever make its way to the school gym, and in fact the first wave already has. Kids in Philadelphia work out while hooked up to heart rate monitors and circuit-training software. Solid fitness tracking apps can be had for free on numerous electronic platforms and data on thousands of students is already being logged with their help. Even online learning organizations are getting into phys ed, offering students the ability to connect with a P.E. coach over the Internet but do the actual exercising in the comfort and privacy of their own home or local gym. Other than maybe a few engineers at Nike, who knows what technological innovations await tomorrow’s students?

  • Ditching high-profile team sports for individual “lifetime” sports:

    In November 2012, the historically black women’s college Spelman announced it was cutting its athletics department to focus its sports budget on a wellness initiative for the entire student body. The number of resulting headlines revealed how radical many found the move. But the reality was the program was losing $10 million a year and their hands were effectively tied. Nevertheless, Spelman may have unintentionally given the rest of us a glimpse of the future of physical education. About 99% of students are not going to go pro in football or baseball. What they need is instruction in tennis, swimming, yoga — sports they can enjoy their entire lives. And the P.E. class of the future will offer all that and more.

  • Broader topics:

    As late as the ’50s, phys ed included instruction in hygiene. Of course, fast food and packaged food had yet to take over the American diet, so people arguably didn’t need much nutritional education. Boy, have times changed. Not only is our food packed with chemicals, even when we try to eat healthy we don’t even know where to begin (just ask Michal Pollan). The need for physical education that encompasses the entire physical human structure has never been greater. Call it wellness, nutrition, lifestyle education, whatever. But the effective P.E. programs of the future will teach kids what to eat, how to grow healthy food, how to care for their bodies, and more.

  • Updated activities:

    Thankfully, futuristic school gyms will feature more than that rope hanging from the ceiling and a few wrestling mats. P.E. teachers are fully aware of the need to show kids exercise can be fun (gasp!). Of course, there will be a lag in adoption time for new workouts and fitness trends, but the fact that CrossFit is starting to pop up in schools is a wonderful sign. Others have fronted plans for things like active gaming and Pilates for creative ways to get students moving.

Posted on 11/29/12 | by Staff Writers | in Resources | No Comments »

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