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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
March 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 6

The New Physical Education

Rethinking how we teach physical education can help students lead healthy lives.

Regular physical activity provides numerous health benefits—from leaner bodies and lower blood pressure to improved mental health and cognitive functioning. Even though we know these facts, however, Americans are becoming more sedentary and more obese each year (Mokdad et al., 1999). Because the school physical education program promotes physical activity and can teach skills as well as form or change behaviors, it holds an important key to influencing health and well-being across the life span. To improve the fitness of students, we need to rethink the design and delivery of school-based physical education programs.
A recent survey asked adults in the United States, "What should be taught to students prior to their graduation?" Participants indicated that information about health was more important for students to learn than content in language arts, mathematics, science, history, or any other subject (Marzano & Kendall, 1998). Despite this high ranking, most schools devote minimal curriculum time to teaching students how to lead healthy lives.
To provide healthy-lifestyle education, a quality program of physical education must be a core requirement in all schools and a central component in a comprehensive school health program (Allensworth & Kolbe, 1987). Our first step might be to consider ways to increase curriculum time devoted to physical education. In addition, schools need to thoughtfully analyze the design and delivery of school physical education programs to ensure that they are engaging, developmentally appropriate, inclusive, and instructionally powerful and that they are designed to teach students about the importance of leading physically active lives.

The Importance of Physical Activity

One of the most emphatic recommendations in reports from numerous federal and health promotion agencies is to increase the levels of physical activity among children and youth. Physical inactivity results in substantial, negative health consequences. Obesity, high blood glucose, high blood pressure, and high blood lipids all occur more often among sedentary adults. These problems increase the risk for chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, various cancers, Type II diabetes, and hypertension. Indeed, a direct relationship exists between leading a physically active life and developing long-term good health. Each year, physical inactivity contributes to nearly 260,000 deaths in the United States (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1997). Unhealthy behaviors take many years to present themselves clinically, but there is a compelling reason to believe that helping students learn to be active early in their lives will provide an important foundation for lifetime physical activity.
Guidelines suggest that children and youth need at least 30 to 60 minutes of accumulated physical activity on all or most days. More than 60 minutes and up to several hours of appropriate physical activities is optimal, however. Because children are intermittently active (they do not naturally engage in continuous activities, such as jogging), we need to make sure that they have multiple periods of moderate activity that are at least 10 to 15 minutes in duration each day (Corbin & Pangrazi, 1998).
Despite the importance of establishing patterns of physical activity during childhood, half of U.S. children and youth are not active on a regular basis. Levels of moderate to vigorous activity decline dramatically during adolescence. The percentage of adolescents who have opportunities for daily physical education dropped from 42 percent in 1991 to 25 percent in 1995 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1996). Recent studies have found that middle and secondary schools across the nation devote little curriculum time to physical education (Simons-Morton, Eitel, & Small, 1999). Daily physical education programs across grades 6–12 are virtually nonexistent.
Sallis and McKenzie (1991) challenge physical educators to "adopt a new role and pursue a public health goal for physical education" (p. 133). They advocate developing new curriculum, providing extensive teacher training, and working with other health professionals to accomplish health outcomes through increased physical activity.

Quality Physical Education Programs

What constitutes a quality physical education program? How do we help students gain the knowledge and abilities they need to lead an active life now and in the future? Further, how can educators work together with other health professionals to ensure that our children and youth have every opportunity to learn how to lead healthy lives? These are important questions that every school district and every school needs to ask.
Quality physical education programs are essential in helping students gain competence and confidence in a variety of movement forms, such as sports, dance, recreational activities, and fitness activities. The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE, 1995) has developed national standards for physical education that define a physically educated person (see fig. 1). These standards acknowledge the students' motor, fitness, cognitive, affective/behavioral, and active lifestyle needs, and they focus on the importance of lifetime involvement in physical activity. They provide a sound framework for the design of physical education programs and assessments that help students learn and demonstrate their movement knowledge and skills, their fitness levels, and their habits and values related to physical fitness.
National Physical Education Standards
A physically educated person
  • Demonstrates competence in many movement forms and proficiency in a few movement forms;
  • Applies movement concepts and principles to the learning and development of motor skills;
  • Exhibits a physically active lifestyle;
  • Achieves and maintains a health-enhancing level of physical activity;
  • Demonstrates responsible personal and social behavior in physical activity settings;
  • Demonstrates understanding and respect for differences among people in physical activity settings;
  • Understands that physical activity provides opportunities for enjoyment, self-expression, and social interaction.
(NASPE, 1995, p. vi)
Standards alone, however, will not ensure a quality program. Although many programs are using the standards to create innovative, coherent, learning-focused programs, the field of physical education, like any other field, is driven as much by tradition as by innovation. Age-old, ineffective practices die hard: militaristic calisthenics; squads; "one size fits all" games or sports for large groups regardless of individual ability; team sport–dominated programs that focus more on keeping students busy than on increasing student learning; and grading on "dressing out" and participation as opposed to important learning outcomes. Such practices lead many students to loathe physical education and physical activity.
Students are often minimally active during physical education class time. A variety of practices create this problem. Many physical education programs limit physical activity, for example, through waiting turns or using too much time for roll call. Far too many middle and high school physical education classes focus heavily on team sports, which, if taught in a large-group format, do not necessarily allow all students to achieve moderate levels of physical activity during class time. In addition, programs using a multi-activity format in which students go through activity units of one, two, or three weeks do not provide adequate time for many students to gain a confidence-building level of competence in any activity. Continuing to provide a smorgasbord curriculum while expecting meaningful learning outcomes is foolhardy.
Teachers must carefully select and sequence content, align instructional methods with learning goals, and create meaningful assessments of physical activity. In programs in which learning skills, fitness concepts, and lifetime physical activities (such as individual and dual sports and adventure selections) are priorities, students are much more likely to be active.
Two schools that provide these activities and also offer choice are Washington and Roosevelt Elementary Schools in Green River, Wyoming. Under the leadership of Nancy Raso Eklund, students develop skill and fitness abilities while they learn key concepts of healthy physical activity. Using mind maps, cooperative-learning activities, and problem-solving challenges, they study the concept of aerobic fitness while engaging in skill-development progressions.
Visitors to these two schools might see the gyms configured as a circulatory system, including the four chambers of the heart, valves, arteries, veins, and capillaries. Students "travel" the path of blood through the system while dribbling blue balls to signify cells without oxygen and red balls for cells that carry oxygen. Students are not just performing a random activity; they are learning to understand how their bodies work and how physical activity is vital for health. With adequate curriculum time, proper content selection and instruction, and administrative support, school physical education programs such as Eklund's can be effective in increasing the health, fitness, and physical-activity levels of students.

Activities That Promote Learning

Elementary physical education programs should focus on helping students develop as skillful movers. The curriculum should integrate health-fitness concepts and activities into educational games, educational gymnastics, and educational dance. To be successful in lifetime physical activity, children need to develop knowledge about, and skills in, several forms of activity.
Well-prepared teachers know how to create developmentally appropriate programs that emphasize individual skill and fitness concept learning while maximizing the activity of all students in learning activities. They do not use whole-class games, such as kickball, dodgeball, or team sports just to keep kids busy, and they link activities to desired learning outcomes. They design assessments so that students can demonstrate what they know—and what they can do with what they know—in authentic, developmentally appropriate ways.
One such teacher is Debbie Vigil of Jefferson Elementary School in Sacramento, California, who develops student confidence and competence in skill and fitness concept development. Using dance, she helps students develop rhythmic skills and gain an understanding of the aerobic benefits of dance as a lifetime activity. When teaching volleying and striking skills, she varies instructional task challenges and equipment choices (balloons, beach balls, different-sized racquets) to help children develop skills, learn about skill development, and take responsibility for making appropriate learning choices.
In middle and high school, students should continue to hone skills and integrate health fitness concepts. The curriculum should begin a clear transition in content selection toward lifetime activities. Examples include individual or dual activities such as golf or tennis, recreational and outdoor adventure activities, and fitness activities such as walking or inline skating. Again, content selection and progression should be developmentally appropriate, emphasizing small-sided teams, cooperative activities, and learning centers or stations, and teachers should maximize activity time for all students. If students do not have adequate skills, high-level competitive activities are inappropriate. To experience most of the health benefits of physical activity, individuals do not have to participate at high levels of energy expenditure (Corbin & Pangrazi, 1998). Rather, teachers should provide students with activity choices.
To meet the needs of a wide range of skill levels at Lux Middle School in Lincoln, Nebraska, teachers Cindy Golden, Tim Farley, and their colleagues offer a number of innovative and nonteam sport activities, such as orienteering, fencing, and social and aerobic dance. Instructional units last at least 15 days to provide time for student achievement of learning outcomes and to allow proper and meaningful assessment, including self-, partner-, and teacher-led forms of assessment.
  • Each lesson should have a clear instructional purpose. Often, physical education programs focus more on an activity as an end in itself.
  • Teachers need to teach toward learning, not just organize for participation. Students need to learn important knowledge, life skills, and movement skills and abilities through proper progressions. Though participation is important, it is a means to accomplish learning outcomes.
  • Content selection, management protocols, and instruction should aim toward increasing activity and learning engagement time. Small-sided teams, equipment for all students, choices of activities with different levels of difficulty and intensity, and minimal amounts of waiting are among ways to increase physical activity engagement time.
  • Teachers should remediate if needed. When students do not learn or continue to struggle with accomplishing tasks, we need to provide special assistance. Just because students participate in an activity does not ensure that they have learned. Again, if our goal is for all students to learn and to enjoy physical activity, we need to attend to their progress and their success.

Hands-On Administrative Leadership

  • Provide opportunities for ongoing staff development. Many veteran teachers have not had recent education in the physical activity and health sciences or in pedagogical strategies that maximize learning and physical activity. Much has changed in these fields, and many exciting new ideas have developed. Also, teachers benefit from collegial, professional discussion; common planning time; and peer observation and coaching. Creating opportunities for continued learning and ensuring a safe environment for teachers to try new ideas will facilitate renewal.
  • Observe and evaluate instruction and assessment practices. As in any discipline, physical educators should aim toward high levels of physical activity time for all students. Observe whether the curriculum provides purposeful lessons: skill development, fitness concept teaching, and lifetime activities rather than team sports; instruction and learning rather than recreation; and assessment based on what students are learning, not on what students do or on unjustifiable components such as "dressing out." Administrators should expect learning to occur.
  • Plan new facilities or modify existing facilities. Administrators who have the opportunity to plan or renovate the physical education facilities should consider putting fitness centers in middle and high schools. During the day, use the facility for instructional programs; invite community programs to use them after school. The gymnasium and fields can provide space for lifetime sports, dance, and recreation.
  • Link components of the comprehensive school health program. Leaders in the faculty and staff health promotion and wellness program, the school nutrition program, and community agencies can all contribute expertise.
Helping children and youth find success, enjoyment, and confidence in their physical abilities is important. We need to provide instructional experiences in which students are active and engaged in developmentally appropriate ways. We need to embed the life skills of decision making, goal setting, problem solving, self-assessment, and health advocacy into our lessons (Corbin & Pangrazi, 1998). Assessments must ask students to demonstrate important learning outcomes.
As we renew our programs, we need to focus on what matters most in physical education: helping our students gain the knowledge, skills, and behaviors that will help them love to be active.

Allensworth, D., & Kolbe, L. (1987). The comprehensive school health program: Exploring an expanded concept. Journal of School Health, 57, 409–412.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (1996). CDC surveillance summaries, 1995. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 45 (Surveillance Summary #4).

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (1997). Guidelines for school and community health programs to promote physical activity among youth. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 46 (Recommendations and Reports #6), 1–36.

Corbin, C., & Pangrazi, R. (1998). Physical activity for children: A statement of guidelines. Reston, VA: National Association for Sport and Physical Education/American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance.

Marzano, R., & Kendall, J. (1998). What should students be taught in school: A survey of U.S. adults. Aurora, CO: Mid-Continent Regional Educational Laboratory.

Mokdad, A., Serdula, M., Dietz, W., Bowman, B., Marks, J., & Koplan, J. (1999). The spread of the obesity epidemic in the United States, 1991–1998. Journal of the American Medical Association, 282, 1519–1522.

National Association for Sport and Physical Education. (1995). Moving into the future: National standards for physical education. Reston, VA: American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance.

Sallis, J., & McKenzie, T. (1991). Physical education's role in public health. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 62, 124–137.

Simons-Morton, B., Eitel, P., & Small, M. (1999). School physical education: Secondary analyses of the school health policies and programs study. Journal of School Health, 30(5).

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