Several months ago, I spent some time at a friend’s house. His 4-year-old son was walking around the kitchen, enjoying some crackers for a snack. I won’t name the cracker, but I’d classify it as junk food. As the boy enjoyed his snack, he paused and made a very interesting comment: “The more I eat, the hungrier I get.”
Even at 4 years old, my friend’s son recognized one of the key features of the unhealthy junk-food items found in the dessert and snack aisles of our supermarkets. These foods—including those crackers—are extremely high in refined carbohydrates, which break down quickly into sugar after you eat them. At the same time, there is little useful nutrition in these foods. Eating these foods produces a “sugar rush” that makes you want even more. In other words, these foods not only taste great, they make you feel great too! But only for a minute. You need to keep eating to keep having that great feeling. And this 4-year-old boy, not even in kindergarten yet, was able to verbalize this situation beautifully.
If there is one behavior trait that’s taboo for teachers it’s selfishness. However, as classroom teachers acquaint themselves with the process of teaching physical education, I think it’s important for them to put their needs first. I know this sounds heretical, but give me a chance to explain.
Over the course of my career, I have met many classroom teachers who find teaching physical education a challenge. Some flatly refuse to bring their students out for PE—ever. Others offer their students an extended recess, but provide no instruction. Talking with these reluctant teachers, I’ve realized that a lot of their discomfort stems from the process of conducting a PE session—selecting activities, gathering equipment, transitioning their students out to the yard, and initiating the activity. So much goes into making this all work, and each step presents challenges.
We need classroom teachers to get involved in teaching PE, so I encourage them to make the experience of teaching PE as easy for themselves as possible. This “selfish behavior” is perfectly acceptable for classroom teachers as long as the experience is a good one for their students.
Do you feel reluctant about teaching PE? Here are two tips to ease the burden.
Start with short PE periods. Children should get 60 minutes of exercise per day, but you can break that 60 minutes into small chunks. Even 10 minutes of physical activity is good for kids.
Focus on activities that require minimal equipment. It takes time and effort to organize equipment, bring it out to the yard, set it up, and put it away. PE by Design offers many activities that require no equipment at all.
Once you get comfortable with the routine of conducting a PE session, you can extend your PE periods, offer a wider variety of activities, and refocus on putting your students first!
Teaching physical education involves more than just getting your students moving. You also want to give them useful health and fitness information. Classroom teachers may have limited time for diving deeply into PE concepts with their students. I teach PE full-time, and I still need to balance time spent discussing health concepts with time spent engaging in activities. A tool I call quick messaging is an important part of my program, and it’s a great tool for classroom teachers as well. A quick message is a health fact or a brief statement about fitness that ties in with the activities your students are doing or are about to do.
The idea is to use short statements—easy-to-grasp concepts—that you can repeat throughout the school year. Here’s an example. You are about to initiate a tag game with your students. You could say, “Children are supposed to get 60 minutes of exercise per day, and we will be working towards that goal in this activity.” Referring to the 60-minutes guideline is a great quick message. It’s a crucial concept, it’s easy to state quickly, and you can repeat it often throughout the year.
I’ve identified five key health messages for children that you can use to kick-start your quick-messaging campaign. Three relate to fitness, the other two relate to diet.
You should do at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day.
You need to get 60 minutes of exercise a day, but you don’t have to do it all at once—do 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there—it all adds up.
Physical activity should be fun. Choose things you like to do.
Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, but keep those salty, sugary, processed foods to a minimum.
Avoid soft drinks.
Don’t limit yourself to the PE setting when you share these messages. If you observe a group of students with healthy lunches, you might say to the class, “these students did not have a soda with their lunches—good choice!”
The long-term health of your students will depend more on the choices they make after they leave elementary school than the activities they participate in as elementary students. Equipping them with an understanding of how to make healthy choices as they move through life is extremely important. By focusing on these quick health messages repeatedly, you help give your students the knowledge they need to make healthy choices.
Many classroom teachers who are trying to build a PE program have no fitness background and are unfamiliar with basic fitness guidelines for children. If you’re just starting to teach PE, it helps to develop a list of reliable resources about physical fitness and health. And I’d put the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) at the top of that list.
The CDC is a federal agency under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is considered the preeminent public health organization in the United States. The CDC functions as an outlet for health information endorsed by our federal government, and it’s a valuable source of information on fitness for children.
Several sections of the CDC website provide key fitness guidelines specifically for children. Physical Activity Basics is a good place to start. There you’ll find a subsection titled “How Much Physical Activity Do Children Need?” It covers three main categories of exercise for children—aerobic activity, muscle strengthening, and bone strengthening. There are specific recommendations for each category, including perhaps the most-important fitness recommendation of all—kids should receive at least 60 minutes of exercise per day. Use this section to learn what types of activities are appropriate for what ages, how long should children do different types of activities, and how often should they do them.
Another part of the CDC website, Healthy Schools, offers access to several resources on improving children’s health in our schools. In particular, I recommend the School Health Guidelines section. It provides strategies and guidelines for creating a health-focused environment on school campuses.
As you build your PE program, it is vital to keep the basic fitness guidelines in mind. The CDC web pages provide a quick reference on the basics of exercise for children, and specifically, expectations for how schools can approach addressing the health of their children.
It’s time to give walking the recognition it deserves. Here are some benefits of walking that you can share with your students:
It’s easy! Just put on your shoes and go.
It can be a social activity. Walk and talk with a friend.
Walking is a great moderate-intensity aerobic exercise. You won’t develop the endurance to run a marathon by walking, but you will get some aerobic benefit—your heart and lungs will get stronger.
Walking strengthens muscles throughout the body, especially the legs. Even the important abdominal muscles receive some benefit from walking.
As you walk, your circulation rate increases, pumping more oxygen to the brain. The result? You’re more invigorated, which makes you more alert and better able to focus on important school work when you return to the classroom.
Walking is also an excellent pick-me-up. If energy levels flag in the classroom, try taking your students out for a 5-to-10-minute walk. See how they feel when they return to the classroom. I bet they’ll be better able to focus on their work!
Gretchen Reynolds is a health/fitness writer for the New York Times and she’s one of my favorites. A lot of Reynolds’ work focuses on Children and fitness, with an emphasis on children at school. Here’s another great article by Reynolds (Click here to view the article). Reynolds offers evidence that children who exercise after school experience a reduction in body fat and they perform better academically.
I found a great article this morning in a small publication from Texas. (To view the article, click here) The article focuses on children and energy drinks. Unfortunately, these drinks, including Red Bull and Gatorade, are often marketed directly to children and teens with boasts that they replenish electrolytes and improve athletic performance. But many of these drinks include high levels of sugar, caffeine or both. As the author mentions, professional athletes benefit from electrolyte replacement drinks during a vigorous workout, but not children. Before exercise, children are much better off eating a healthy meal, allowing time for digestion, then drinking water as they exercise.
I noticed this article from The Aiken Standard today, titled “HEALTH AND FITNESS: Preventing summer weight gain in kids.” The message of the article is a good one: Parents should me mindful of their children’s activity level and diet over the summer. However, I think the emphasis on preventing summer weight game taps into a delicate issue. In my K-5 PE classes, I intentionally avoid references to body-weight when discussing nutrition. I do this because I think elementary age students are too young to manage their weight with the same degree of responsibility as an adult. Instead, I focus on a simpler, kid friendly message in my classes: I often remind my students that they should eat healthy food and get an hour of physical activity per day.
I think the message of emphasizing to parents healthy body weight in children is fine. However, it’s worthwhile to mention that the message should be presented to kids in a way that’s appropriate. Over the summer, kids may be less physically active away from school. It would be totally ok to remind children that they should move throughout the day for a total of at least 60 minutes, while eating a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables.
On Friday, California State Superintendent of Public Education Tom Torlakson spoke in opposition to federal budget cuts that could impact school nutrition programs throughout the state. Torlakson was speaking at the Ninth Biennial Childhood Obesity Conference in San Diego. An article from the Santa Clarita Valley public television (click here) lists several programs which assist children and needy families that could be reduced or cut if President Donald Trumps proposals are carried through. I want to applaud Torlakson for his positions.