While it’s a common mistake to see physical education and physical activity assumed to be the same thing, it’s a mistake that needs correcting. Each are important, but in the rush to focus on keeping kids more active in school, physical education can be overlooked.
Physical activity and physical education are complementary but distinct. Physical activity is any movement that involves physical exertion — sports, walking, dancing, and more. Physical education is a curriculum-based program that teaches students the benefits of physical activity and promotes lifelong healthy and active habits.
- is unstructured. When kids play tag at recess, walk home after school, or chase their dog in the backyard, this is physical activity.
- releases endorphins, builds muscle and bone density, strengthens the cardiovascular system, and improves coordination.
- reduces risk of depression, diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.
- is led by children themselves. They decide what to do.
Physical activity covers a broad range of activities — essentially anything that involves physical exertion and movement of the body. Physical activity is what many people focus on when considering how to reduce child obesity.
While physical activity is very important, it is not enough. To truly thrive, children also need physical education.
- is structured. Teachers and coaches teach specific skills and exercises, outline rules, and provide a structured warm-up and cool down.
- goes beyond movement. Students learn how the body works, the importance of physical movement, and what nutritious food is.
- includes goals and assessment. A written curriculum provides clear objectives, and students are graded on on their learning and performance.
Every few years, the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE) America releases a report on the state of physical education in the United States. As it says in its 2010 report, “Physical education is based on a sequence of learning… [which] also includes health, nutrition, social responsibility, and the value of fitness throughout one’s life.”
Essentially, physical education helps children better understand and enjoy physical activity. It prepares them for a lifetime of being healthy and active.
Physical Education Can Improve Academic Outcomes
Today, there is a lot of focus on making sure children are active, particularly to combat the problem of childhood obesity. While this is great, it is important for parents and educators to understand the difference between physical activity and physical education, so they can ensure children receive enough physical education.
Too often, it is assumed that if children have time for unstructured physical activity, their physical needs are being met. But this can mean the physical education part of the equation is neglected. Physical education is often pushed aside to make additional space for more traditional academics, like math and science.
In 2016, SHAPE found that nearly all 50 states have standards for physical education programs. Yet “only Oregon and the District of Columbia meet the national recommendations for weekly time in physical education at both elementary and middle school levels.”
That means the vast majority of American children are not receiving enough physical education. As a result, they may have underdeveloped motor skills, sportsmanship, self-efficacy, and even emotional intelligence. An absence of physical education can even have a negative impact on academic performance.
According to the Institute of Medicine, “the benefits of additional time dedicated to physical education and other physical activity opportunities before, during, and after school outweigh the benefits of exclusive utilization of school time for academic learning.”
In other words, cutting physical education time to fit in another math class can backfire, and a child might do better in that math class if they have more time in physical education. A study of D.C. schools found those that provided 90 minutes of physical education a week had higher standardardized math scores.
The Shape of the Nation report points to research that shows improving physical education curricula in schools benefits students regardless of their race, gender, socioeconomic status, or age. School districts struggling with attendance and poor student performance need to look at the research. Recess is not enough — physical education classes are important too.
Advocating for Physical Education
Unfortunately, as the Shape of the Nation report shows, few schools have adequate physical education. It doesn’t have to be this way. By advocating for physical education, we can make sure all children receive the physical education they need.
Guidelines for advocating for nutritious school meals hold well when it comes to advocating for physical education in the school where you teach, or the school your children attend.
Get educated. Read about the importance of physical education, and how to advocate for physical education and student health. SHAPE America has many resources and research on physical education, too. Share what you learn with parents, educators, school administrators and even elected officials.
Get organized. Remember: there is strength in numbers.
Bring together other concerned educators and parents to agree on physical education goals and how to reach them.
Take action. Meet with school administrators to share your concerns. Join your Parent-Teacher Association. If you’re a teacher, join SHAPE’s 50 Million Strong campaign.
Physical education is essential for our children. It improves their well-being and academic outcomes, and helps them develop life skills that will keep them healthy throughout their lives.
But it can’t be assumed your children will receive the physical education they need without your help. Become an advocate for physical education.
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More Physical Education
- 15 Reflection Questions for the Physical Educator
- Physical Activity and Brain Boosters
- 6 Physical Activities to Keep Your Students Focused Until the Last Day of School
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