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The Sport Digest - ISSN: 1558-6448

LET THEM PLAY: A Child's Need for Physical Education


Physical education is sometimes the only opportunity for children to engage in physical activity. Due to the obesity and overweight epidemic among children in our country, it is imperative that we consider the importance of physical education in our schools. If children are involved in successful physical and health education programs throughout their schooling years, they may continue a healthy and active lifestyle as adults.

Benefits of Physical Activity

It is a known fact that physical activity improves overall health. Not only does it improve circulation, increase blood flow to the brain, and raise endorphin levels, physically active students may also achieve more academically. Physically fit students are less likely to miss school, partake in risky behaviors, get pregnant, or attempt suicide (Taras, 2005).

Several studies have stated that providing increased time for physical activity can lead to better concentration, reduced disruptive behavior, and higher test scores in reading, math, and writing (Satcher, 2005).

Lack of Support for Physical Education

Barriers to implementing comprehensive health education programs including physical education are abundant. Gaining administrative and government support for health programs is difficult, considering the pressure that local leaders face to improve academic skills (Symons, 1997). Physical education programs are not often seen as a primary concern to school administrators, since many believe that students’ physical health concerns should be an issue that parents address.

NASPE & Physical Education

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education recommends that children be engaged in at least sixty minutes of age-appropriate physical activity on all or most days of the week. "School physical education programs provide a context for regular and structured physical activity" (Fairclough and Stratton, 2005).

Lack of Physical Activity

Children who are overweight or obese often experience many symptoms which effect their learning in school. Not only do weight problems lead to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, joint problems, asthma, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and diabetes — but children who are overweight miss as much as four times as much school as children of normal weight (Satcher, 2005). Increased levels of depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and behavioral problems have all been demonstrated among overweight children (Zametkin et al., 2004).

The widespread rates of obesity and overweight issues among populations of African American children are alarming. These high rates are similar to those in the adult population, with African American and Latinos being significantly over-represented among those who are overweight in our country. African American children are reported to watch the most television of any ethnic group and children who spend large amounts of time watching television are likely to be sedentary, and have less time for physical activity (Sallis et al., 1996).

Hip Hop to Health Jr.

Fitzgibbon et al. describe this community-based health program as an effort to prevent obesity in African American and Latino children three to five years of age. The program is implemented through Head Start in the Chicago area. The program relies on the principle of early intervention and uses modeling of healthy behaviors and food choices to encourage children to try new foods and engage in new activities.

CATCH Program

A good example of a successful school intervention program is the Child and Adolescent Trial for Cardiovascular Health (CATCH). The CATCH program was instituted in third grade physical education classes in four El Paso elementary schools to attempt to decrease the risk of overweight and obesity for these children (Coleman et al., 2005). The results of the study concluded that children in the CATCH program were less likely to be at risk for being overweight by the fifth grade and physical education classes were more likely to engage students in vigorous activity through the fifth grade.

The PATH Program

Fardy, Azzollini, and Herman’s article “Health Based Physical Education in Urban High Schools: The PATH Program” (2004) discusses “a unique physical education program that was developed to address the problem and to provide recommendations for increased emphasis on health-based physical education in teacher preparation programs”. In the PATH program, teachers are instructed to take time at the beginning and end of their physical education classes to discuss health related issues. The intervention was successful in increasing health knowledge and aerobic fitness, especially in girls and overweight students.

No Child Left Behind

The No Child Left Behind Policy, started in 2001 by the Bush Administration, does not address health education at all and it is drawing funds away from improving the health of America’s children (AAHPERD). It gives the impression to schools that health education is not a priority and that standardized test scores in “core subjects” are what should be focused on. This has resulted in funding cuts for physical and health education, the loss of physical educator positions, and the shortchanging of students (AAHPERD).


Physical education and play are two areas that are alarmingly neglected in the school system. State health and education agencies need to recognize and support findings that demonstrate that good health positively impacts learning. Physical education is as critical to a child’s development as any academic endeavor. It is up to the adults to lead by example … and “LET THEM PLAY”.


Coleman, K.J., Tiller, C. L., Sanchez, J., Heath, E.M., Suy, O., Milliken, G, & Dzewaltowski, D. (2005). Prevention of the epidemic increase in child risk of overweight in low-income schools: The El Paso coordinated approach to child health. Arch Pediatric Adolescent Medicine (159), 217-224.

Fairclough, S. & Stratton, G. (2005) ‘Physical education makes you fit and healthy’. Physical education’s contribution to young people’s physical activity levels. Health Education Research (20)(1) 14-23.

Fardy, P., Azzollini, A., & Herman, A. (2004). Health-based physical education in urban high schools: The PATH Program. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education (23), 359-371.

Fitzgibbon, M.L., Stolley, M.R., Dyer, A.R., VanHorn, L., & KauferChristoffel, K. (2002). A community-based obesity prevention program for minority children: rationale and study design for hip hop to health, jr. Preventative Medicine (34), 289-297.

Health Education and Physical Education: Important at the Core. Retrieved 4/18/2006 from http://www.aahperd.org.

Sallis, J.F., McKenzie, T.L., Kolody, B., Lewis, M., Marshall, S., & Rosengard, P. (1999). Effects of health-related physical education on academic achievement: Project SPARK. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. (70)(2), 127-134.

Satcher, D. (2005). Healthy and ready to learn: Research shows that nutrition and physical activity affect student academic achievement. Educational Leadership (63), 26-30.

Symons, C.W., Cinneli, B., James, T.C., Groff, P. (1997). Bridging student health risks and academic achievement through comprehensive school health programs. Journal of School Health. (67)(6), 220-227.

Taras, H. (2005) Physical activity and student performance at school. Journal of School Health (75)(6), 214-218.

Zametkin, A.J., Zoon, C.K., Klein, H.W., & Munson, S. (2004). Psychiatric aspects of child and adolescent obesity: A review of the past 10 years. J. Am. Acad. Child Adolescent Psychiatry (43)(2), 134-147.