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 Putting Education Back Into Physical Education

​You either loved it or dreaded it in school.

Sit and wait for roll call. Do a cold stretch, run a lap, then get into formation to play a traditional sport. And then back to class.

The goal 20 years ago was to learn about different sports.

Today, physical education looks and feels much different, with a focus on the whole child, wellness, and engagement.

With May as National Physical Fitness and Sports Month, we asked Paige Metz, the San Diego County Office of Education's coordinator for health and physical education, about this important shift.

“Sports were great for about 25% of students, but the other 75% were just trying to survive class,” she explained. “Physical education is now about teaching a physically fit lifestyle and growing students’ physical literacy.”

The sole focus on traditional sports has been replaced with a focus on standards that support students’ physical literacy, such as:

  • Demonstration of skills needed to perform a variety of movements
  • Knowledge of movement concepts, principles, and strategies that apply to learning and performance of physical activity
  • Assessment and maintenance of physical fitness to improve health and performance
  • Utilization of psychological and sociological concepts, principles, and strategies (this includes teambuilding and social responsibility)
The goal is for students to develop physical literacy, which is defined as the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge, and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life.  

“It’s building students’ competence, because competence leads to confidence. And the more confident a student feels, the more likely it is they’ll want to be active for life,” Metz said.

For at least 50% of class time, all students should be participating in moderate to vigorous activity — something that gets their heart rate up. Large increases in breathing or heart rate have been shown to help students learn better by enhancing concentration skills and on-task behavior, Metz said. 

This shift also moves from large scale exercises or sports games to modified games with one or two people or small groups where students have multiple opportunities to try and perfect new skills.

For example, an activity recently highlighted in Metz’s monthly newsletter to physical and health educators describes a sprint tic-tac-toe game. Students are in pairs and each student has a bean bag or marker. They take turns sprinting to the tic-tac-toe grid and placing a marker until someone gets three in a row. They have so much fun with the game, they forget how hard their body is working.

The state standards are clear, but change is always tough for adults used to teaching physical education in a certain way, and there’s still progress to be made. That’s why Metz works with physical education teachers and school administrators to ensure classes are aligned to state standards and meet the needs of all students.

“Physical education should be a place where every student comes and has access to skills, tools, strategies, and understanding to be physically active for life,” said Metz, calling it an issue of health equity.

The 2017-18 California Physical Fitness Test shows that up to 40% of 5th-, 7th-, and 9th-grade students are at health risk in aerobic capacity, body composition, and do not pass five out of six fitness standards.

Physical literacy isn’t something that should just be developed during physical education, schools and families can also work together to help.

Five things we can all do to develop physical literacy

  1. Research different physical activities that are available in your community and give them a try.
  2. Go for a hike! San Diego County has miles and miles of beautiful hiking trails.
  3. Challenge yourself and family members to have more physical activity minutes than screen time minutes per day.
  4. Regularly walk or bike to the store, school, or other local destination.
  5. Take turns letting family members pick a physical activity you can do together.  This can include getting family and friends together to kick or throw a ball around, or to participate in casual games or your favorite physical activities, such as softball, pickleball, or soccer.