Virginia lawmakers recently passed legislation requiring schools to schedule 150 minutes of physical education (PE) each week. They hope that the increased amount of activity will derail the obesity juggernaut threatening to make our current generation of children the first in over 200 years to have shorter lifespans than their parents. Will mandating more PE make our children fitter? Or does this legislation merely highlight the difference between what PE really is, and what the popular conception of it is?
While there is certainly a physical fitness component to PE we often act as if that’s all there is, completely overlooking the educational aspects. The Virginia legislation is focused on fitness improvements that would result from increased activity. But what about the educational benefits; what is it that we expect students to learn in PE class and, more importantly, why should they learn it?
What students learn in PE class has a more long lasting effect on their futures than what they actually do in the class itself. PE class is one of the few places where students can learn fundamental movement skills that are essential to all physical activities. One might imagine that children could learn these basic skills in youth sport programs but in the age of early sport specialization and a growing lack of non-school recreational opportunities the full range of fundamental movement skills frequently aren’t learned. Children may become very skilled in one specific activity but remain physically illiterate in others. The phrase “can’t walk and chew gum at the same time” may be an exaggerated description of someone lacking physical literacy but it’s not completely wrong. Thus the fight against obesity would be better served by reinforcing the importance of PE curricula rather than on the volume of activity students engage in throughout the week.
And then, of course, there are the children who don’t participate in youth sports at all. Without adequate PE instruction there’s a good chance that these children are doomed to a life of inactivity because even though their desire to be active may change as they get older they won’t have the movement skills necessary to be active in any meaningful way. Lack of proper PE instruction when young can set the stage for a life of inactivity. PE is one of the first and probably most important tools in the fight against obesity. Just as students must learn basic grammar and spelling to be able to communicate effectively later, PE class prepares them for a lifetime of healthy living, providing them with the basic movement education they need to participate successfully in sports and fitness exercises.
Although it’s a good start, solving the obesity problem is not as simple as forcing children into more activity or making it difficult for them to get their hands on fat- or sugar-laden snacks. While the immediate effect of more activity per week might result in improved fitness we should recognize that physical education is important all by itself and not just for some of its immediate spill-over effects. If we consider PE as the cornerstone of the foundation for physical literacy, upon which a future healthy lifestyle is built, then we may begin solving the obesity puzzle. Becoming physically literate—presumably the goal of any school’s PE program—can help put our children on a path to a future healthy lifestyle.
- Virginia lawmakers approve PE requirement for elementary, middle school students
- Children’s BMI found to rise the longer their mothers work
- Children’s life expectancy being cut short by obesity
Mr. Price is a faculty member at the United States Sports Academy. As a former swimming coach he served as executive director and head coach of the Saluki Swim Club in Carbondale, Illinois. He also worked in Malaysia and Brunei as part of an Academy project team focusing on developing age-appropriate sports programs.