Schools strive for healthier attitude toward fitness

 More Images »  Today’s schoolkids could grow up to be the first generation of adults whose gym classes turned them on to physical activity for life.Unlike previous generations, they’re less likely to have humiliating memories of being picked last to play baseball, or being ridiculed by jocks for not being able to run fast or not being able to spike the ball over the volleyball net. That’s because the ’c-word’ — competition — is no longer the focus of physical education; inspiring a healthy lifestyle is.The emphasis began to change about 10 years ago, in hopes it would encourage more high-school students to continue to take phys ed in grades 11 and 12, even though it wasn’t required. Physical education is mandatory through Grade 10 in order to graduate from high school.Alberta Education recently completed a review of wellness-related programs of study, and as of the 2014-15 school year, a renamed HPE (health and physical education) program will be mandatory through Grade 11.A lot of students, mostly those not athletically inclined, used to stop taking phys ed after Grade 10 because they knew they weren’t going to get a good mark and it wasn’t an enjoyable experience, says Andrew Morgan, with Edmonton Public Schools’ consulting services.It inspired school administrators to start thinking: What’s wrong with making phys ed a totally enjoyable experience?”It was like, ’Let’s create a curriculum that allows students to sample activities that they may be doing for their entire lives,’ ” Morgan says. So, besides the more traditional team sports such as basketball, volleyball, soccer and football, students get a chance to try individual activities such as yoga, Pilates, cycling and wall climbing.Phys ed and athletics are now run as separate programs. In fact, some schools, such as St. Francis Xavier High, have created sports-specific academies and institutes, where elite athletes can compete against each other instead of against students with less aptitude, making sport a more positive experience for all involved.”In years gone by, a school’s athletic director used to also be a physical education teacher and would run whatever sport was going at that point in physical education classes, to see which children had a good aptitude for that particular sport,” Morgan explains.Those students would then be encouraged to play that sport on the school team.More and more, the phys-ed curriculum is aiming to wholly encompass the student and develop the whole child intellectually, physically, socially, spiritually and emotionally, says Cheryl Shinkaruk, Edmonton Catholic Schools’ wellness, physical education and health consultant.The approach is bolstered by the fact that 26 per cent of young Canadians aged two to 17 are overweight or obese, compared with 12 per cent three decades ago.”A lot of parents now are becoming concerned through the media and through health studies that show a lot of children don’t have enough physical activity,” Morgan says.Concern about the impact of a sedentary society and the ever-expanding obesity epidemic on the health and wellness of the general population prompted Alberta Education in 2005 to mandate that students in grades 1 to 9 get 30 minutes of daily physical activity.”I think we’re definitely moving in the right direction,” says Shinkaruk. “Yes, academics is important, but I think students need that physical activity in their high-school years to be able to address their own mental wellness, anxieties and stress.”Making phys ed mandatory in high school sends the message that being physically active is important and, she hopes, inspires students to embrace a healthy lifestyle after graduation.Finally, physical education is considered as important to the education of a student as academic studies, not just a mental break from reading, writing and arithmetic. In fact, a growing body of research, including a 2006 study of grades 5, 7 and 9 students in California, finds students who are physically healthier do better in school.Photos housed in the Edmonton Public Schools’ Archives and Museum, dating back 100 years, show physical activity has been a part of education about as long as schools have been in existence. But its purpose has changed over the years.During the First World War, phys ed in Edmonton schools was guided by a cadet instructor, so it had a lot in common with cadet training, especially for boys. Students marched and did military drills along with track and field, basketball and hockey. The objective, according to a souvenir school pamphlet, was to correct physical defects through movement, promote grace and muscular development and to teach discipline and prompt obedience.”It is generally recognized that the work in physical training has . . . made the work of the teachers with regard (to discipline) comparatively easy.”In 1922, Department of Education guidelines said students in grades 1 to 8 should have 80 minutes of physical activity a week, preferably outside, weather permitting. Suggested activities included dodge ball, relay races and games with names like Run Rabbit Run and Brownies and Fairies.By 1951, students in grades 1 to 3 were supposed to have 20 minutes of physical education every day. Walking with correct posture, light leaping and skipping and animal imitations were examples of encouraged activities.High-school boys had a wide choice of physical activities to choose from, including wrestling and gymnastics. Girls had less to choose from — gymnastics, basketball and volleyball, mostly — and government guidelines suggested they shouldn’t be worked as hard as the boys.In the 1960s, phys-ed teachers started pushing for larger school gyms and more space. It was a tough sell for more money at a time when many school principals didn’t consider phys ed as important as the core subjects. Those principals were probably not good at athletics as kids, suggests Morgan, who says principals who were as good at phys ed as kids were more likely to value it in their schools.A more modern approach to physical activity, and a start to de-emphasizing competition, emerged in the 1970s. Faculty of physical education staff at the University of Alberta weighed in on the issue in a letter to the Edmonton public school board in September 1974.The letter noted the concerns of parents about the questionable value of school physical education being compulsory to Grade 10.At the junior and senior high level, “programs are oriented toward leisure-time activities today much more than toward the traditional competitive sport program that emerged from the ’games’ orientation of British schools,” and alienated students not among the “sport” elite, the letter said.”Regular, vigorous exercise enhances the quality of life by increasing the physical capacity of an individual for work and for play.”As for compelling students to take physical education, no one likes to be forced to do anything, the U of A letter writers noted, but “members of society charged with the responsibility of established educational programs have said that certain types of learning experiences are important for the preservation of society as a whole.”Almost 40 years later, that still appears to be the case.

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