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.


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.

Finding Hidden PE Gems

About 5 years ago, a friend of mine named Carolyn retired from teaching. Carolyn was a classroom teacher for over 30 years, and we taught together for several years before she retired. Traditionally at my school, the final teaching day is followed by a check-out day during which teachers pack up their belongings and turn in their keys. On the cleanup day following Carolyn’s final day of teaching, she approached me with a box full of materials. “Here you go—this may be useful to you.” The box was full of PE resources that she had accumulated through the years, including the exercise cards in the photograph below. Carolyn told me that the box had been stored away, and she had forgotten about its contents.

I learned a valuable lesson from Carolyn that day. Teachers accumulate materials over the course of their teaching careers. You might be surprised by some of the valuable materials they have. Talk with your colleagues. There may be some hidden PE gems among their belongings!

PE on Hard Surfaces: 5 Activities that Work Well

Most of the activities in the PE by Design program work best on grass. But many schools have no grass field. Even when there is a field, it is often too wet to use. In these situations, the blacktop (or a concrete area) is the only available outdoor surface on which to hold a PE class.

A hard surface is perfectly acceptable for most PE activities. (One big exception: I avoid conducting most tag games on the blacktop.) However, I always remind students to stay alert and be more careful during any games played on the blacktop.

The PE by Design website offers many activities that students can perform on the blacktop. Here are my top five favorites. They all emphasize movement, so your students will get great exercise with these activities.

  1. Line Tag (grades 2–5)

You will need painted playground lines for this tag game. Students follow the lines as they run. Be sure to remind them to move safely and look out for objects on the blacktop.

  1. Jump Rope (grades K–5)

Jump Rope is ideal for the blacktop. The website offers three types of jump-rope activities.

  1. Around the Circle (grades K–5)

You will need a painted circle for this activity. Direct your students to perform a variety of exercises as they move around the circle.

  1. Strength-Exercise Surprise Cards (grades K–5)

Print the strength-exercise cards that are part of the PDF. Choose cards randomly, and have your students perform the selected exercises on the blacktop.

  1. Foursquare Tag (grades 1–5)

You will need foursquare courts for this activity. Your students safely chase each other while following the foursquare court lines.

The Value of Quick Messaging in PE

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.

The CDC Website: A Great PE Reference

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.


Walking: Perhaps the Greatest Exercise of All

Here’s one simple exercise you probably do every day—walking.

You walk around the house. You walk from the parking lot to work. You walk up and down the aisles at the grocery store. But do you count that walking as exercise?

In a 2012 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, prominent fitness writer Gretchen Reynolds says that walking is “ . . . without a doubt, the single best exercise that exists.”

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!

A Great Article By Gretchen Reynolds

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.

Simple PE Activities: A 4th Grade Teacher’s Success Story

I once taught with a 4th grade teacher who had a remarkably simple, yet effective, approach to teaching physical education. I’ll call her Brenda.

Brenda led her students out to the yard often. When she arrived at the edge of the grass field, she simply said “Go!” over and over again. Her students immediately started jogging around the yard. They continued for 5 to 10 minutes. Brenda brought her kids out more than any other teacher in our school, probably three days a week.

I noticed something remarkable when I tested Brenda’s students for the mile run. Her students outperformed not just the other 4th grade classes in our school, but all of the 5th grade classes as well! I attribute the success of her students in the mile-run test to the extra running they did with Brenda.

Brenda’s approach to teaching PE was to stick with simplicity, and it paid off. It would have been ideal if she could have built on her simple jogging program, adding other activities for variety. Yet the success of her students in the mile-run test illustrates that even short jogging sessions, carried out consistently over time, can have a great impact on your students’ performance!