“Physical education provides cognitive content and instruction designed to develop motor skills, knowledge, and behaviors for physical activity and physical fitness. Supporting schools to establish physical education daily can provide students with the ability and confidence to be physically active for a lifetime.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
For athletes and energetic students, this is a class that can spark excitement and anticipation. For other students, it represents discomfort, a feeling of apprehension, and low energy.
The goal of physical education, or P.E., is to encourage a healthy, life-long movement habit. By mandating physical education, schools hope to equip students with an understanding of their bodies’ movements and the confidence to engage in physical activities for the rest of their lives.
But is this really necessary? After all, P.E. class in America is a relatively new concept. No one argues physical activity isn’t necessary for a healthy and productive life. However, a growing movement is questioning whether schools should spend time and resources forcing students to do what should come naturally. On the other hand, data shows an alarming American trend: exercise and fitness are not a natural byproduct of life in the modern era.
The question is whether physical education is an appropriate or necessary mandatory class.
The History of Physical Education
The origins of physical education sprang forth from ancient Greece. Young men had their destined path from a young age, and part of that destiny was to be in pristine physical condition.
Of course, the Greeks tended to worship the human form in all its glory with reverence. This profound awe offered an excellent flashpoint for the culture’s dedication to physical education. Their version of P.E. and all its attributes attained legendary status, becoming the world’s most famous competitive physical games—the Olympics.
From Greece, the concept of physical education for all ages slowly spread. By the mid-19th century, America had joined the movement, beginning with the U.S. military. Eventually, the idea gained enough popularity to be incorporated into schools. Today, physical education classes have been in American schools for over a century.
The State of American School Children
Despite growing alarm over the health of American youth, physical fitness requirements for school children have been lacking. While the 2016 Shape of the Nation study found that every state had at least a basic requirement for physical education in schools, from the waning physical state of American schoolchildren, it’s very apparent that these standards simply aren’t enough, or are ignored altogether.
According to the CDC, obesity has steadily risen for 40 years among American children. In fact, the percentages have more than tripled since the 1970s. By 2017-2018, a study showed that approximately 19% of kids between 2 and 19 were obese.
While several contributing factors are to blame, the CDC acknowledges schools’ responsibility to combat this horrific problem. “A comprehensive approach is most effective at addressing childhood obesity in schools, especially for elementary and middle school students….A comprehensive approach means directing attention to nutrition and physical activity in schools….This approach aims to support the health and well-being of all students.”
Few would argue the claim that we are facing a health crisis when it comes to the American school child. But should schools require their students to address this issue during school hours, on school grounds?
“Mandatory Physical Education (PE) is not something new. For decades, states and districts have weighed in on whether to require physical education as part of a school’s curriculum. Despite the benefits of regular physical activity, mandating students to participate in PE has both advantages and drawbacks.”
The pros and cons of mandatory physical education classes spark passion on both sides of the debate. Here are a few facts that play into this debate.
Obviously, the most substantiated argument for P.E. classes is that, when properly enforced, they can promote healthy movement during an otherwise fairly sedentary day. Numerous studies prove that exercise holds a multitude of health benefits for children. It has been shown to:
The CDC recommends that children from 6 to 17 years old get at least sixty minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity every day. While it is conceivable that children could obtain this threshold outside of school, the likelihood of it happening regularly is questionable.
Why? American schoolchildren spend about three to seven hours a day at school. Often, after school, they have additional homework and extracurricular activities, especially as they get older. Younger students have plenty of time to be physically active at home after school, but older students simply don’t have much expendable time. During school hours could be the best time to ensure that students get the exercise they need.
While the virtues of physical fitness are undeniable, some students have no interest in participating. Whether they have a physical difficulty or simply prefer to take a different class, many students avoid attending their school’s P.E. classes.
In fact, some research has shown that mandatory physical education in schools actually increases truancy rates. One study in Texas discovered “that PE does not lead to positive spillover effects in the classroom….Instead, we provide some evidence to suggest that PE reduces attendance rates and increases disciplinary incidents…”
An alternative to skipping school entirely is to invent excuses to avoid the class in other ways. This is such a common problem in schools that Wikihow actually wrote an entire post about P.E., including how to get out of the class and how to cope with anxieties related to the class.
P.E. classes are a great way to teach kids good character traits, such as discipline and respect for authority. In many ways, the P.E. debate is similar to the school sports debate, and some of the pros for each intersect.
Just as in sports, physical education classes teach students specific traits, such as endurance, self-discipline, teamwork, and respect for leadership. Edsys notes that sports teach quality life lessons such as following rules and practicing restraint. Kids also learn to respect decisions in a physically and emotionally charged situation when adrenaline is surging through their bodies. These are good life lessons that can propel them toward real-life success.
For students dreading P.E., the fear of bullying is often part of their anxiety. There is a growing concern among educators and researchers about kids being harassed due to their physical appearance or inability to keep up with others in the class.
Research has shown a direct correlation between bullying during physical education classes and lowered motivation to be active outside of class. One study showed that kids who are already dealing with weight issues and experiencing bullying during P.E. are at a much higher risk for health-related issues later on. Additionally, kids within normal weight ranges who experience bullying during physical education classes are less likely to be active a year later.
For many students, this experience can detract from their cognitive function and focus. Instead, it adds stress to their lives, which directly negates other positive effects of physical activity.
Physical education classes teach kids to value their physical well-being and show them the value of caring for themselves properly. Taught from this perspective, P.E. classes can have the opposite effect as bullying and can help encourage students to have confidence in themselves.
Azusa Pacific University’s Janna Sanchez, M.S., stated, “Physical education programs should not be based on sports alone, but on positive movement opportunities that enhance self-esteem, worth, dignity, and self-discipline. A child is able to capitalize on their own personal strengths and learn from their weaknesses when they comprehend how to work with others in a variety of settings. That is what physical education and play are all about.”
Because of the nature of P.E. classes, while students are “in class” for a substantial amount of time, research has shown that kids only actually engage in rigorous activity for a small fraction of that time. They spend the rest of the class standing, sitting, and waiting their turn.
This leads some to question whether or not physical education classes are a waste of time that could otherwise be used more productively in academic pursuits.
Whether a child loves physical activity or despises it, there’s no denying a link between mental health and physical activity in kids. P.E. has a wealth of mental health benefits, including battling depression, increasing sleep quality, and countering behavioral disorders in kids.
When a child is healthy mentally, they are more likely to carry that well-being over into their physical bodies. P.E. classes can jumpstart a continuous cycle: exercise = good mental health, good mental health = increased physical activity.
A Heated Debate
The bottom line is that a sea of arguments exists on both sides, and there is no easy answer. Parents and educators must continue to work together to bring the best solution to the table that prioritizes the holistic health of the child, including physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Physical education has a long-standing history of success, and our country faces an appalling epidemic of childhood diseases that could easily be helped through regular physical activity. However, other factors, such as bullying and self-esteem, must also be considered.
Perhaps, schools should begin to offer alternative sources of physical activity and other habits that encourage children to work on their health at home or in their free time. Creativity and ingenuity can help to solve this enormous problem in American youth. And it must, because our children are our future.