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Physical education updates activities to focus on fitness

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Catherine W. Idzerda
March 12, 2012
— Childhood play isn't what it used to be.

Sports are more intensively organized, with tryouts and traveling teams for even the youngest tots.


Parents, concerned about safety, no longer toss their kids outside on summer mornings with instructions to not come back until lunch.


Not that the kids would go. When given a choice—climate-controlled living room with the latest game system versus the challenge of organizing a pickup baseball game in the humidity—air conditioning will win every time.


Here's the good news: Physical education isn't what it used to be, either.


Gone are the days of standing on the black line and waiting for tough guy or gal to bark instructions at you.


Today's teachers use the latest research in brain development. They track fitness levels, teach values and life skills along with game rules. Most important, they help students find activities they can enjoy for the rest of their lives.


Three years ago, the Delavan-Darien School District was awarded a multi-year Carol M. White Physical Education Program grant totaling than $1 million.


The grant allowed the school to invest in equipment such as a ropes course, climbing walls, treadmills, weight machines and a variety of other, more unusual items such as kayaks.


"It's also allowed us to do more professional development," said Deborah Ludlow, head of the high school's physical education department.


'Lifetime activities'

For teachers, professional development means learning about the latest, research-based, best practices for their classrooms.


Ludlow launched a comprehensive rewrite of the district's K-12 physical education curriculum, focusing on four strands: fitness, nutrition, adventure education and skills.


In the new era of physical education, "skills" doesn't necessarily include how to hit a three-point shot.


"It's not the activity itself, but skills, such as team work, communication or sportsmanship," said Ludlow, who has been teaching in the district for 32 years.


The nutrition strand is a mix of eat-right and get-enough-sleep basics and more sophisticated concepts of body composition, metabolic rate and target heart rate.


"A lot of girls who are skinny think they are doing OK," Ludlow said.


But their body fat ratio, metabolic rate, muscular strength and endurance tell a different story.


Students are expected to know the five components of fitness: muscular strength, muscular endurance, cardio-vascular endurance, flexibility and body composition.


The grant also allowed the district to keep the fitness rooms open after school and teach Zumba, yoga and Pilates classes.


Why all the choices?


"We want all students to find something they feel competent doing. We want them to be hooked on lifetime activities," Ludlow said.


Getting fit doesn't have to mean participating in traditional sports.


Perhaps one of the most innovative and useful aspects of the curriculum is the fitness portfolio that students start in the early grades. It follows them to high school and outlines goals, achievements and body composition changes.


Why expend all that energy and money on physical education?


The Center for Disease Control has described childhood obesity rates a national epidemic.


And fit kids learn better.


"New research on the brain shows that people learn better when they're fit," Ludlow said.


It's not just about increasing the oxygen supply to the brain. Being fit helps stimulate the neurons that are used for learning mathematics and writing, Ludlow said.


Swimming upstream

Ludlow doesn't look back at how children's lives used to be. Instead, she focuses on "this is what's important right now for our students."


Still, it's difficult not to look back with fondness to the days when the nation didn't need a marketing campaign to encourage children to play for 60 minutes every day.


Like Ludlow, Clinton Middle School physical education teacher Chris Jaecks has been a part of those changes.


"I think that overall, we've kind of moved from more sports-orientated to more teaching skills that students will need as they grow older," said Jaecks, who has been teaching for 16 years.


They still teach the basics of the popular team sports such as baseball, basketball and flag football, but Jaecks finds that he sometimes just needs to teach kids how to play.


Club sports and traveling teams have improved the level of play, but they've also created an "incredible emphasis on team" and structure. Kids get so caught up in structure that they think they need 10 people to play basketball.


"I've done units before where I've said to the kids, 'This is what you have to use, now make up a game,'" Jaecks said.


Kids have to exercise their imaginations, settle on the rules and work together—just like those days when Mom threw you out the door and told you to go play.


Some children are so busy that unstructured play is a mystery. Between music lessons, traveling to figure skating or Pee Wee hockey and the regular lineup of homework, who has time to make up games or engage in the archaic practices of stoopball, cubby or seven-up?


Clinton's Middle School is participating in the NFL's Play 60 Challenge. Students log exercise hours and compete against other districts for prizes.


As part of Play 60, the entire school joins in five minutes of activity. Some days, they play "Macarena" or "YMCA" over the school loudspeakers, and all the students get up to dance.


How motivating is the program?


"One mother told me that her son was out chopping wood—he's really in to it," Jaecks said.



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