If you ask a physical education teacher what they teach, most will usually give you a description that includes skills, fitness, and lifetime physical activities. Ask the question “is it important for our graduates to be active for a lifetime” and, you will get a resounding, “yes, of course it is.” We have advocated lifetime physical activity for so many decades and still the overriding issue is that most adults are inactive and sedentary. So, does physical education receive a failing grade? What if we graduated over 90% of our students who couldn’t read or do basic math? And yet, we graduate over 90% of students who don’t participate in the lowest level of daily physical activity as adults.
Because of COVID-19 it may be sometime before parents are willing to have their children participate in a physical education environment where they handle the same equipment and generate physical contact. With COVID-19 dictating that we deliver physical education online, we have an opportunity to create a new delivery model. Maybe it is time we deliver lifetime activity classes to ALL students in K-12. If you think about it, we are now delivering and monitoring our students in a home environment. We are using all kinds of media, hard copy, and knocking on doors to reach out to our students. We are more concerned about getting homebound students to move and be active than measuring their fitness levels and skill performance. This all smells a bit like focusing on lifetime activity. So, what are characteristics of lifetime activity that will hook students, help them make it a habit, and create a desire to do it every day, much like brushing your teeth.
Long-lasting physical activity behaviors are characterized by the following: (with kudos to William Glasser):
- The active behavior is noncompetitive and valued as something you want to do every day.
- The activity is easy to do (doesn’t require polished skills) and offers social and emotional benefits with a minimum of mental effort.
- The activity you choose can be done individually or with a friend but doesn’t require support from others.
- It makes you feel successful. You don’t compare yourself to others, you avoid personal criticism, and you find the joy in your effort.
These are the social and emotional constructs that must be met if students are going to develop activity behaviors that stick with them throughout life. Think about it – most of what we measure in physical education deals with the physical performance side – fitness and skills. That obviously doesn’t produce students who want to be active adults. So, the next hypothesis is that they must have knowledge about fitness and health, and then they will be active. Unfortunately, most adults know what they must do to be active and how to do it. But they just choose not to do it. Maybe it hasn’t worked because we haven’t taken the time to teach the third part of the triangle – the social and emotional issues that are tied to being an active person. Just reflect on the four points I mentioned above. Noncompetitive, personal choice, able to do it alone, and a belief you are capable without personal and external criticism.
So, what might this mean for the future of physical education after COVID? It implies using many different combinations to reach our students and to focus on ALL students participating in lifetime activity. For example, maybe we use physical educators in entirely different roles. One day a week they teach health in a large auditorium to half the school (6 feet apart). Two days a week, they promote students being involved in lifetime activities with assignments for walking, biking, hopscotch, tag games etc. depending on the age of the student. And the other two days they use to help students with weight management, active participation behaviors, and healthy eating to name a few points of focus. Of course, I don’t have it all figured out yet. All of us must work toward a new model to assure that most activity students accumulate is outside the school day. Just as we require books, computers, and supplies for students, why can’t we require a supply of home equipment such as balls, light weights, jump ropes and pedometers. And all students must be part of some activity; it’s not a choice it is a mandate. Let’s start thinking what needs to be done. If we plan forward, we won’t fall behind. Even if COVID restrictions are lifted at the start of the year, a new model is necessary. We aren’t graduating students who are engaged in personal health maintenance. And the future of our profession is now. You could be the last generation of teachers if the public sees no value in physical education. The time to start is now.