For many board members, memories of physical education class may well involve militaristic calisthenics, “one size fits all” team sports, and human target games such as dodge ball.

But teaching physical education and health has taken a turn from the traditional old-school routines to an innovative wellness strategy that strives to empower students to learn and practice healthy active behaviors.

In past years, too many physical education programs had been locked in a diehard culture of ineffective practices such as those mentioned above. Large group teaching often resulted in long lines, minimal levels of physical activity, and few opportunities for instruction and skill learning. Instead of focusing on skill instruction and assessment, most grading focused on “dressing appropriately, sportsmanship, and effort.”

Traditional health education instruction was driven by teacher lectures and videos that addressed the do’s and don’ts of safety, nutrition, and hygiene. Student involvement in the learning process tended to be passive with limited discussion and interaction.

There are a plethora of choices and challenges that students must face throughout their life. Without the tools needed to make smart choices, students are doomed to choose behaviors that will negatively impact their own health as well as the health of others. But the good news is that in today’s quality health and physical education programs, healthy-lifestyle environments are being created so students can learn the skills necessary to live healthy active lifestyles. Teachers in these programs thoughtfully analyze, design, and deliver instructionally-powerful standards-based curriculum aimed at developing the students’ physical, social, emotional, and intellectual growth. Furthermore, these teachers provide students the “what” and the “why” of each lesson by providing meaningful instruction and assessment. For students to buy into learning, they need to not just learn skills but also to understand why these skills are relevant to their health. These programs also strive to personalize instruction using differentiated strategie to meet the diverse needs, interests, and abilities of all students.

Healthy Students are Better Students

Many administrators, health experts, teachers, and parents have recognized that the time for change is long overdue. The research overwhelmingly supports the importance of students learning lifetime skills that lead to personal health and wellness. Not only will students benefit health-wise from participating in enriching programs, they will also thrive academically. The positive correlations between health, physical activity, and academic achievement are considerable. Healthy students do better in school. They have higher attendance, have better grades, and perform better on tests.

Teching Active Lifestyles

Physical education plays a critical role in helping students develop and maintain active lifestyles. Unfortunately, physical activity levels have continued a downward trend for the past forty years. This has contributed to the obesity epidemic and has resulted in ongoing and substantial health issues for our youth. This negative trend is being addressed by physical education teachers who are using multiple strategies to address this issue.

Within physical education class, student physical activity levels as well as intensity levels are now optimized throughout the instructional class time. These students are taught how to be fit as well as how to be skillful movers. Through the implementation of a comprehensive and sequential instructional plan, they gain the movement and fitness skill competence necessary to become active throughout their lifespan. Furthermore, the type of skills and activities taught contribute greatly to impacting student activity levels. Examples of best practices curriculum include lifetime sports and activities, health-related fitness concepts, and experiential adventure challenges. These programs also strive to individualize and personalize instruction through differentiated instruction to meet the diverse needs, interests, and abilities of all students.

Many of today’s physical education teachers have also augmented their program by creating school-wide physical activity programs. These initiatives support what is happening in physical education class by maximizing opportunities for student movement before, during, and after school as well as in the community. Project-based activities such as Jump Rope for Heart, Walk to School, Bicycle Rodeos, Field Days, School/Community Runs, and Fun and Fitness Nights create a culture of movement.

Making Healthy Decisions

Exciting things are also happening in health class. Students are participating in dynamic, interactive lessons and projects that address real life health issues. They are debating, discussing, role-playing, and advocating their way to making healthy choices. They are learning critical life skills such as decision-making, problem-solving, communication, and goal-setting, while addressing the physical, social, emotional, and intellectual dimensions of wellness.

Students are taught specific strategies that address the most common lifestyle challenges. For example, students learn how to effectively reduce risk taking through the development of decision-making strategies. They learn how to develop refusal skills when pressured by peers to participate in unsafe or inappropriate activities.

Emphasis on health promotion techniques such as creating realistic short- and long-term goals, as well as learning how to access valid and reliable information, is intertwined throughout all health content. Social and emotional health skills are taught to students through the development of interpersonal communication skills as well as conflict resolution strategies.

In addition, project-based real world activities provide opportunities for higher levels of student engagement and learning within the school and community. School recycling initiatives, health fairs, and driver safety anti-texting campaigns are just a few examples of relevant real world experiences that engage students in a rich learning process. These types of interdisciplinary projects also foster natural connections to work with teachers from other content areas.

There are many successful health and physical education programs that are flourishing in New Jersey schools. One example of an educational best practice occurs in Dwight D. Eisenhower Middle School in Wyckoff school district. Health and physical education teacher Colleen McCurry is an outstanding professional who is dedicated to helping her students learn health-enhancing behaviors. She has been recognized as the 2014 Middle School Teacher of the Year by the New Jersey Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance. She was also a national finalist for the 2015 SHAPE America Teacher of the Year. When asked about her program’s wellness focus, she says:

“As a physical education and health teacher, I strive to help students achieve their full potential physically, mentally and socially. I believe it is essential to educate students about the importance of balancing all three aspects of their health. My department has worked diligently to create units in our program that best meet the overall needs of the students. Our PE curriculum has a wellness approach that is divided into 4 broad categories: 1) Team/Individual; 2) Lifetime; 3) Experiential Learning; and 4) Fitness.

Each grade level is scaffolded to increase a student’s exposure to new activities, promote discovery and emphasize choices that will help the students lead an active, healthy lifestyle.

In our Lifetime Unit, we introduce the students to games that are challenging and fun, but most importantly can be played throughout their entire life. (For example, table tennis, ladder ball, bocce, horseshoes, golf and archery.) Another example would include our Annual Turkey Trot event. This PE fundraiser is geared to raise awareness about hunger and allow the students to make a difference in the life of a family that is struggling to put food on their table. The students build on their physical health by running laps to earn frozen turkey donations while becoming more socially aware and emotionally supportive of our local community. Engaging students in meaningful activities that will demonstrate how their decisions have a lifelong impact in health education is critical. Utilizing technology, hands-on experiments, role-playing and group discussion allows the students to see the connection between the state standards and real-life choices and experiences. An example of this would be when my 8th grade students participate in an STI experiment to see how a sexual decision can have serious risks and consequences. This activity provides a hands-on activity to identify how every decision can have a lifelong impact physically, mentally, emotionally and socially.”

Colleen McCurry is also quick to emphasize that the success of the school’s program is a result of a total team effort and commitment. She recognizes that the health and physical education program would not have near the impact without the cooperation and support of colleagues, parents, the school board and the administration. In addition to the health and physical education staff working as a strong cohesive unit, the department is interconnected within a student-centered school district focus. The cornerstone of this interdisciplinary philosophy is working toward the common goal of educating the whole child, while optimizing the individual progress of each student.

James McCall, PhD is currently an assistant professor in the Health and Exercise Science Department at Rowan University as well as advocacy chairperson for the New Jersey Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance. He previously taught 30 years in the Voorhees Township school district and also served as coordinator of health and physical education for the New Jersey Department of Education.

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