What Activities Count as PE?

Recently, during my presentation to the elementary teaching credential candidates at Dominican University of California, in San Rafael, a student asked me an interesting question: “What activities count as PE?” Where I teach, elementary schools are under increased scrutiny to meet California’s state PE requirement (200 minutes of PE instruction, every 10 school days). Increasingly, classroom teachers are being asked not only to meet those minutes, but also to document their activity choices and present the information to their administrators. The student who asked the question worried about teaching something she considers to be a valid PE activity and finding out later that her administrator disagrees.

Unless your district or school has a strict policy that calls for all PE activities to meet state and/or national PE guidelines, chances are there’s a lot of leeway in judging whether a PE activity is acceptable. To determine if something is a valid PE activity, ask yourself two key questions.

Does the activity involve instruction? Let’s say you set out some cones, simply tell your students to run, and then watch as they race around the cones for 10 minutes. That is a great activity in terms of fitness, but the amount of instruction is minimal. I would consider this a valid PE activity, but barely. What if you bring your students together at the end of the run and discuss the importance of running to their health, referencing the fact that children should receive 60 minutes of exercise per day? Now, you are adding a strong instruction piece to the activity. A lack of instruction explains why recess, in which children play freely without input from a teacher, is not regarded as physical education by most educators.

Can you reasonably argue that the activity is a valid physical education activity? This guideline is vague, I know. But deciding whether an activity counts as PE depends in part on whether you can make a strong case for its validity. When considering an activity, ask yourself these additional questions:

  • Does the activity get my students moving?
  • To what extent are my students interacting during the activity?
  • Are my students working to develop specific fitness skills?

If the activity meets one or more of these criteria, then you’re probably OK.

For example, let’s say you bring out a set of beanbags. You demonstrate the proper form for an underhand toss, then you put students into small groups to work on tossing and catching. Would this count as a valid PE activity? I think it would. There is a strong instruction piece—teaching the form at the beginning. Though the beanbag toss is not rigorous physically, the students are developing physical skills (toss and catch). Additionally, they are developing social skills by working together in groups.

If you wonder whether the activities you choose are acceptable, talk with your administrator. They can alert you to specific PE considerations for your school or district, and they will appreciate your proactive step of seeking their feedback.


SHAPE America Standards—A Good Foundation for K–5 PE Programs

When K–5 classroom teachers begin teaching PE, they’re likely to have many questions: What activities should I do with my students? What type of equipment should I use? What guidelines should I follow? These are challenging questions for classroom teachers who have no formal fitness background and no formal training in how to teach PE. Although most states have PE content standards designed to guide teachers, these standards can be overwhelming for classroom teachers. State PE standards tend to be very detailed. (In California, where I live, there are approximately 50–60 standards per grade level.)

I suggest a different approach for K–5 classroom teachers. SHAPE (Society of Health and Physical Educators) America is the most prominent PE advocacy group in the United States. SHAPE America has produced a set of 5 physical education standards. These standards are quite broad. They do not describe specific physical education activities, but they do capture the essence of what PE in our schools should emphasize—movement, creative expression, and developing a life-long appreciation for exercise.

In one area, SHAPE America’s standards may be too much for classroom teachers. SHAPE emphasizes gauging students’ progress over time. For example, Standard 1 states “The physically literate individual demonstrates competency in a variety of motor skills and movement patterns.” That word, demonstrates, is a call for periodic assessments. SHAPE America wants teachers to be able to prove that the standards have been met.

Asking K–5 classroom teachers to assess their students periodically may be unrealistic. Ideally, assessments would show progress, but classroom teachers have so much else to do, they’re unlikely to find time for multiple assessments.

If you are struggling with basic questions as you start creating your PE program, check out SHAPE America’s national standards. They will help you build a good ideological foundation for your program. Click here to view the standards.

PE Class-Management Tip: Praise Well-Behaved Students

Managing students outside the classroom can be daunting for K–5 classroom teachers who are planning a PE program. I will periodically offer PE class-management tips in this blog.

In the outdoor PE setting, students are energized and not always willing to follow directions. One way to encourage good behavior is to remove the incentives to misbehave. Rather than empowering students who seek attention through misbehavior, create an atmosphere where there are opportunities to gain attention through positive behavior. Praise students frequently. Students love receiving positive attention. Whether it’s a student who has good form on a push-up, or a pair of students who settle a dispute fairly in a game, point out those students whose actions contribute positively to the class.

For more tips, check out my book, PE by Design, which features a 15-page section on class-management strategies. To purchase the book, click here.

Combining a PE Session with a Recess

Classroom teachers who view one or more elements of the PE session as a huge challenge tend to shy away from teaching PE. I think it’s important to counteract that tendency by making the PE experience as convenient as possible for classroom teachers. Let’s tackle one common obstacle: transitioning students to and from the playground. Like all experienced teachers, I know that students are not always on their best behavior while walking through the school hallways. You can reduce the number of times that you have to transition your students between the yard and the classroom by combining a PE session with a student recess.

Let’s say that you are planning a 20-minute PE session with students whose lunch recess takes place from 12:00 to 12:45 on the same yard where you hold PE. You can bring your students out to the yard at 11:40 for the PE session, dismiss them directly to lunch at 12:00, and skip the task of bringing them back to class.

Another option is to lead the PE session at the end of a recess. Bring out whatever equipment you need towards the end of the lunch period, then bring your students to PE right from the their pick-up spot on the yard. The effect is the same—you have one less transition to manage.

Using Time-Outs During Outdoor PE Sessions

One of the most common class-management issues, as any elementary school teacher will tell you, is overly chatty students. For some students, the outdoor PE setting makes the temptation to talk (while they should be listening to the teacher) too great to resist. How should you handle these chatty students?

A time-out—removing a disruptive student from the current activity—is one of my favorite class-management tools. But you must use time-outs responsibly to get their full benefit. Keep time-outs short, about 3 to 5 minutes. Often, the students who present the most severe behavior challenges are the ones who most need to be involved in organized activity. So you want to get them back into the action quickly. At the end of a time-out, chat briefly with the student you disciplined. Make sure they understand the mistakes they made and know what they have to do differently.

The added bonus of a time-out is its potentially strong impact on the other students in the class. Often, immediately after you issue a time-out, other chatty students quiet down as they realize that there could be a consequence for their behavior.

Moves Like Jagger: How Body Language Can Help You Manage Your PE Class

It’s hard for an audience to look away from Mick Jagger when he’s onstage performing with the Rolling Stones. Even in a football stadium, with thousands of spectators, Jagger’s stage presence captivates the crowd.

How does he do it? Aside from natural charisma, Jagger and other rock stars use exaggerated body language and movement to hold the audience’s attention. Check out a Rolling Stones concert video on YouTube, and take a close look at Jagger’s moves. He runs back and forth across the stage, he throws his arms up and down as he dances, and his face is always expressive.

Like Mick Jagger with his audience, you can command your students’ attention by using demonstrative body movements. You don’t need to be over the top with rock-star physicality. Just try these simple techniques when you address your class:

  • Be active. Don’t stand in one place too long. Watching you move helps students who are standing farther away connect with you.
  • Speak slowly. Give your students time to digest the information. Slower speech builds suspense and interest in what you’re saying.
  • Raise your voice. It’s harder for your students to hear you outdoors. Speak louder than you would in the classroom.
  • Use your hands. Gesture frequently as you speak to your students. This movement adds visual interest to what you’re saying.

If you can master these techniques, not only will you hold your students’ attention more effectively, you will also notice a drop in class-management issues since your students will be more engaged.

Teaching Students to Be Their Own PE Teachers

In recent months, I’ve started sharing a new message with my students. It goes something like this:

“Boys and girls, you all know that I am your PE teacher right now. It’s my job to teach you how important it is to eat well and exercise. In the coming years, you will certainly have other PE teachers. But eventually, after you finish school and you become an adult, someone else is going to become your PE Teacher. And this person is going to be your PE teacher for the rest of your lives. Who do you think that person is?”

By the end of the statement, most of my older students (4th and 5th grade) realize what my point is. Eventually, you will all become PE teachers for yourselves. Whenever I share this message with my students, it’s amazing how focused they get. They seem to grasp the enormity of the responsibility. One day, they are going to be in charge of taking care of themselves.

As I explain the message further, I say that eventually, there will be no school-based PE teacher to set up fitness activities for them. It’s going to be up to them to choose to get involved in exercise. It’s also going to be up to them—not their parents—to choose healthy foods to eat. I also say that the simplest PE messages I give them are the most important: Try to get 60 minutes of physical activity each day; pick fitness activities that you enjoy; eat healthy foods, and avoid soft drinks.

I think the concept of personal responsibility for health and fitness is an important one for classroom teachers to share with their students. It makes an excellent starting point for a class discussion on ways that your students can be great PE teachers for themselves one day.