Six ways schools improved PE to prioritize student interests and motivation

Some schools have succeeded in making their PE programs popular and well-attended. At AD Henderson University School in Florida, the gym elective among middle schoolers is always full; though kids who play sports after school are allowed to skip it, 95 percent attend anyway. At the Girls Athletic Leadership Schools, charter programs for middle and high school kids, physical activity is integrated throughout the school day, and “morning movement” takes the place of PE. At Tuscarora High School in Maryland, where students are required to attend just one physical education section during their four years, about one-third of the students take it throughout high school.

These schools have adapted their physical education programs to help kids enjoy exercise. Educators there explained what makes their programs popular:

“We change it up a lot,” said Chris Childs, the athletic director at AD Henderson. Childs said that instructors switch units every two to three weeks and include sports that most students will have limited playing experience, like pickleball. Offering new sports options keeps PE fresh. Instructors also make up new games for the students to play as a way to level the playing field; even the most experienced athletes, then, have to learn these games from scratch. And teachers divide units into separate skills, so that a ten-day volleyball section, say, might start with four people working together to practice serving.

“Choice is a big buy-in,” Alyssa Worbetz, the director of athletics at GALS charter school, told me. Students progress through three large exercise “units” over the course of the year: team games and yoga; cardio; and choice, wherein kids decide for themselves if they’d like to play soccer or basketball, say, or take up self-defense or running, among other options. Free choice also appeals to students at Tuscarora High School, who get to decide for themselves, every “free-day Friday,” what activity they’ll play that day.

“We’re sensitive to kids’ wariness about the locker room,” said Howard Putterman, the athletic director at Tuscarora. As a practical matter, that means allowing kids who won’t change clothes to play anyway. “We work with the kids,” Putterman added. Instructors at AD Henderson allow some kids to use the locker room earlier, ahead of the crowd. They also put an adult in the locker room to preempt any bullying. “We accommodate kids who are awkward,” Childs told me.

They offer competitive and non-competitive games. Rather than throw aggressive athletes in with reluctant participants, the PE instructors at AD Henderson offer everyone the chance to choose between intense and relaxed play. Thus, kids who want to go hard at the game can compete against other gung-ho players, while those who prefer a relaxed and fun approach can participate with similarly mellow students. Childs said that the stigma around PE has persisted in part because the kids who relish gym class growing up are more apt to become physical education instructors as adults; they naturally assume that all kids enjoy aggressive play. More students will benefit from regular exercise if athletic departments find ways to reach kids who balk at competition.

“We don’t use fitness as a punishment,” Childs said. Sentencing the late student to three laps around the field won’t teach kids that exercise can be enjoyable. Students start moving as soon as they’ve changed clothes and teachers take attendance while kids walk the gym’s perimeter. Some kids use pedometers to measure their distance. At GALS, girls are taught that physical activity is central to life, and that anyone with a body is an athlete.

They focus on relationships. At Tuscarora, PE instructors strive to know the students personally. “They’re the most personable people in the building,” a 12th grader there said. Students at GALS relish morning movement because the teachers participate with the girls. “We don’t just talk about it, we’re a part of it,” Worbetz said.

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