In school, gym class often just felt like play.

Sure, sometimes it involved being hit by one of those red playground balls hurled at top speed by a kid with anger management problems, but theoretically, it was supposed to be similar to play.

For Washington Elementary School kindergartners, physical education class also looks remarkably like play.

But it can also look a little bit like art, anatomy, geometry and reading. And unlike decades ago, physical education classes are about healthy brains and healthy bodies, not just one or the other.


Washington Elementary School physical education teacher Sherry Hintz points at a student with a raised hand during class Wednesday. The words underlined in red are ‘sight words’ that kindergartners are supposed to be able to read.

Washington gym teacher Sherry Hintz said college courses and professional workshops are really focusing on the connection between brain development and activity.

“It’s something we’ve known about for a long time, but we’re just now starting to bring it to the forefront and recognizing how important it is,” said Hintz, who has been teaching for 29 years.

According to the National Institutes of Health, physical activity, when used as a break from academic work, generally leads to students who are better able to focus after the break. Academic reviews of the studies done on the subject found that physical education tends to help students in four areas: physical health, learning, getting along with others and emotional control.

On a recent Wednesday morning, all of those factors came into play when Stacy Glowacki’s kindergartners were joined by some friends from third grade.

The day’s activity was a complicated mixture of tasks. In small groups, the kindergartners and third-graders gathered around sets of colored square tiles with instructions on them.


Kindergartners and third-graders work together to do a gym class activity Wednesday at Washington Elementary School in Janesville.

First, they had to make the shape indicated on the tiles with the tiles. Circles, squares and rectangles appeared with remarkable rapidity.

Then the third-graders were supposed to help the kindergartners read the instructions on the back of the tiles, such as “hop around your square.” The instructions contained “sight words” the younger kids were supposed to already know. An art component, shapes and colors, was also part of the exercise.

Surprisingly, it worked. Kids did what they were supposed to do: Reading, tile shapes, hopping, running, jumping and a variety of other movements ensued.

Occasionally, just when things seemed like they might be coming undone, Hintz would raise her voice and tell her students to put their “phalanges on their patellas”—finger bones on their kneecaps, for lay people—and make adjustments to the game.

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s standards for kindergarten physical education include “competency in motor skills and movement patterns needed to perform a variety of physical activities.”

The stars of “physical activities” and “movement patterns” during that session were probably Liam and Joseph.

Liam looked ecstatic from the moment he entered the gym. Generally speaking, he does a little dance as he moves from place to place, but this was a place where he could really let himself go.

Joseph was just happy, and when Hintz and the kids ran around the gym to burn the final few minutes of class, he made the circuit with his arms extended.


Kindergartner Mycah hops with his classmates and third-graders Wednesday at Washington Elementary School in Janesville.