Six Ways Schools Improved Physical Education to Prioritize Student Interests and Motivation

Some schools have succeeded in making their physical education programs popular and well attended. At the AD Henderson University School in Florida, gym class among middle schoolers is always full; although children who play a sport after school are allowed to skip it, 95% still participate. At Girls Athletic Leadership Schools, charter programs for middle and high school students, physical activity is integrated throughout the school day and “morning movement” replaces PE. At Tuscarora High School in Maryland, where students are only required to take one physical education section in their four years, about one-third of students take it throughout high school.

These schools have adapted their physical education programs to help children enjoy exercise. Educators explained what makes their programs popular:

“We change it a lot” said Chris Childs, the sporting director of AD Henderson. Childs said instructors change units every two to three weeks and include sports that most students will have limited experience in, such as pickleball. Offering new sports options keeps the PE fresh. Instructors also create new games for students to play in order to standardize the rules of the game; even the most experienced athletes must therefore learn these games from scratch. And teachers divide the units into separate skills, so a ten-day volleyball section, for example, might start with four people working together to practice the serve.

“Choice is a big buy-in,” Alyssa Worbetz, athletic director at the GALS charter school, told me. Students progress through three major “units” of exercise over the course of the year: team games and yoga; cardio; and choice, where children decide for themselves whether they would like to play soccer or basketball, for example, or engage in self-defense or racing, among other options. Free choice also appeals to the students of Tuscarora High School, who decide for themselves, each “free Friday”, what activity they will do that day.

“We are sensitive to the mistrust of children vis-à-vis the locker room” said Howard Putterman, Tuscarora’s athletic director. In practice, this means allowing children who won’t change clothes to play anyway. “We work with children,” Putterman added. AD Henderson instructors allow some children to use the locker room early, in front of the crowd. They also put an adult in the locker room to prevent bullying. “We welcome kids who are clumsy,” Childs told me.

They offer competitive and non-competitive games. Rather than pitching aggressive athletes with reluctant participants, AD Henderson’s physical education instructors offer everyone the opportunity to choose between intense and relaxed play. So children who want to throw themselves into the game can compete with other passionate players, while those who prefer a relaxed and fun approach can participate with equally gentle pupils. Childs said the stigma around PE has persisted in part because children who enjoy gym classes growing up are more likely to become physical education instructors as adults; they naturally assume that all children enjoy aggressive play. More students will benefit from regular exercise if athletic departments find ways to reach kids who are reluctant to compete.

“We don’t use fitness as a punishment” said Childs. Sentencing the late student to three laps of the field will not teach children that exercise can be enjoyable. Students start moving as soon as they change into their clothes and teachers take attendance as children walk around the perimeter of the gymnasium. Some children use pedometers to measure their distance. At GALS, girls are taught that physical activity is central to life and that anyone with a body is an athlete.

They focus on relationships. At Tuscarora, physical education instructors make an effort to get to know the students personally. “They are the friendliest people in the building,” a 12and grader he said. GALS students enjoy the morning movement because the teachers participate with the girls. “We don’t just talk about it, we’re part of it,” Worbetz said.