Physical education, better known as gym or PE, receives rave reviews from many elementary students. For some, it is a chance to release energy they have been storing up during the day. For others, it is a chance to succeed in a way they cannot in the classroom. For still others, it is a chance simply to have fun. And for their teachers, it is a chance to promote their students' physical development, teach them the rules of various games, help them learn to play fairly, and foster their enjoyment of physical activity.
Physical education is generally given once or twice a week in elementary school. While physical education is a vital part of the school program, it is unrealistic to expect that a school will allot more than two periods a week to gym, given the demands on students' time. The class will usually be taught by a certified physical education teacher who may work at more than one elementary school. Physical education teachers may also teach related subjects such as fitness, health, and nutrition.
Like other subjects, physical education has changed course in recent years. Gym class has become increasingly democratic, with the focus more on promoting the physical competence, health, and fitness of all students and less on fostering the athletic excellence of the few. The goal is to help students enjoy physical activities and feel confident in their abilities, a particularly important goal to pursue at the elementary level when attitudes are being formed.
Towards this end, cooperative activities are often stressed at the expense of competitive activities. Students who shy away from team sports may be offered alternative activities rather than risk the humiliation of failing before their peers. Students who have difficulty climbing rope may be given the option of jumping rope. Even the range of activities has widened. Students in gym may now take nature hikes, do aerobics, or choreograph a dance. This more egalitarian approach is not without its critics, who maintain that the pursuit of excellence in athletics has been relegated to second place.
The physical education program should have a curriculum with specific goals and objectives as well as activities designed with the students' physical and emotional development in mind. Most students in the early elementary grades are not ready for competitive games. They are not old enough to understand the rules of complex games and the pressures of winning and losing may prove overwhelming to them.
The focus at this level should be on developing large-muscle skills (throwing, catching, kicking, jumping, tumbling, etc.) as well as on playing simple non-competitive games. Some gym teachers may rush young children into competitive games prematurely, causing some to be distressed. If you see signs of this with your child, talk with the teacher. There will be time in later grades to deal with the pressures of competition. At this level, the goals are to help students develop coordination and gain confidence in their physical abilities.
Students in the upper elementary grades, many of whom play competitive team sports, are better able to understand the rules of complex games and withstand the ups and downs of competition. Reflecting these changes, gym will now involve more game playing although physical skill development still remains a priority. Fitness may get more attention and the students may learn to do calisthenics.
Physical education should emphasize skill development. A gym teacher who has his students playing the same game week in and week out while doing little teaching is doing an injustice to his students. In addition to needing exposure to a variety of games, children require instruction and activities designed to improve their body awareness, eye-hand coordination, agility, stamina, balance, strength, and flexibility. Physical education should also educate beyond the physical. Gym teachers need to help students learn how to be part of a team, cooperate in a group, play fairly, and win and lose gracefully. This is as much a part of physical education as the activity itself.
Children who are clumsy, slow, or overweight often feel self-conscious during gym class. This is especially the case when their performance is on public display or when they are playing a team sport. Being picked last for a team, not being able to do any chin-ups as others watch, or being taunted by a classmate for their awkwardness can be real blows to their self-esteem. These experiences can cast a shadow over their school day and dampen their enthusiasm for school.
Some children are so upset at the prospect of having their inadequacies showcased before their peers that they resist going to school on gym days. Gym teachers must be especially sensitive to these children, intervening when they learn of ridicule and minimizing the attention drawn to children's physical failings. As discussed above, teachers may balance team activities with individual activities, where there is no risk of disappointing teammates.
Students with coordination problems may be eligible for what is called adaptive physical education. This is individualized physical education for children whose physical deficiencies make it difficult for them to benefit from regular gym class. In some school districts, adaptive physical education is only available to students receiving special education.
Girls are of course just as capable of participating in physical education as boys and should have the same opportunities. While the athletic opportunities available to girls in school have risen dramatically in the past 25 years, discrimination against girls still happens in gym or on the athletic field. Yet it is not just unfair to discriminate against girls, it is also illegal. Title IX, a federal law passed in 1972, forbids sex discrimination in school courses or programs. Physical achievements can be a source of great pride and esteem to girls as well as boys so parents who feel that their daughter is being denied opportunities because of unequal expectations or treatment should contact the school and voice their concerns.
Parents can reinforce the school's physical education program by providing their child with the resources and opportunities to develop physical skills. The equipment need not be elaborate but it should be appropriate for the child's age and physical development (for example, a basketball hoop which can be raised and lowered). Encourage your child to play team sports but do not insist. Children who are intimidated by the prospect of playing team sports may be open to more individual physical activities (for example, biking, swimming, and hiking). You may want to suggest activities to your child but let her make the final decision. Respect her choices and provide encouragement and support. Also keep in mind that you are an important role model for your child: she will be more inclined to engage in physical activity if she sees you doing the same.