Behaviour Management, Physical Education

Get Moving: Helping to Close the Phys Ed. Gap

Get Moving: Helping to Close the Phys Ed. Gap

Originally published in TEACH Magazine, March/April 2022 Issue

By Adam Stone

Physical education is on the decline. A mere 15% of elementary, 9% of middle, and 6% of high school students in the U.S. are required to take Physical Education (PE) classes three or more times a week, according to Washington University in St. Louis. Only six states require physical education in every grade, and just 20% of school districts require daily recess, the advocacy group Active Schools reports.

That means kids are increasingly sedentary. Nationwide, only 27% of high school students say they are physically active every day for at least 60 minutes, according to the non-profit Springboard to Active Schools.

At the same time, there is ample research showing that kids who are physically active do better in school. That means teachers across the board have an active interest in encouraging physical activity. The good news: experts say there are a number of ways for K-12 teachers to help get kids moving. Rather than detracting from lesson time, they say, physical activity in the classroom can be a springboard to better academic outcomes.

Why Physical Education?

Education experts say that regular physical activity is key to successful learning. Part of this is simple biology.

“People who are more active do better academically because of the blood flow to the brain. We always think about physical activity as building up your muscle and your bones, but the blood flow to the brain is what keeps it alive and alert,” says Jim Baugh, the Founder of health-awareness national charity PHIT America.

There is data to back this up. Studies show that kids who get one hour of physical activity a day do 20% better in class; miss an average of five fewer school days per year; and have 40% fewer disciplinary complaints, Springboard to Active Schools reports.

“Physical education is critical in a K-12 environment,” says Courtney Arthur, a Curriculum and Instructional Designer at the Education Development Center, adding that physical movement “provides numerous social and emotional benefits for kids.”

Physical activity can increase academic achievement and positive social interactions, while decreasing negative behavioural issues. “When students are struggling and school performance is poor, they are more likely to experience school and learning as a source of anxiety,” Arthur explains. “By providing them an opportunity to focus on physical movement, collaboration with friends and peers, often in a play-based way, PE becomes a source of relief and a way to break the tension.”

Physical education “is essential to every child,” says Dr. Sabreen Mutawally, a PE educator at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. It can “help students stay on task in school, and assist in improving academic achievement.”

Active kids do better, and yet formal school-day movement opportunities—whether through PE or even just playground time at recess—are on the decline. Something has to change. Simply put, “kids need to move more,” says Nick Kline, Active Schools Manager at Action for Healthy Kids, a non-profit dedicated to creating healthy schools.

Math, science, and reading teachers don’t have to wait around for school- or district-wide priorities to change. They can take steps now to build movement into their own lesson plans, driving positive outcomes without taking away from their academic priorities.

The Teacher’s Role

The National Education Association (NEA) encourages K-12 teachers across a range of disciplines to be part of the solution. “PE isn’t the only class that should emphasize movement,” the organization notes. “Whatever the grade or subject area, every teacher can effectively incorporate movement into the school day.”

When teachers make physical activity a part of their lesson plans, they will see “more focused, better-behaved students who can accomplish even more throughout the school day,” NEA reports. At a high level, this starts with rethinking the ways in which kids learn. It means pivoting from a desk-bound orientation.

“Teachers of any subject can help close the physical activity gap for students by being intentional in integrating movement exercises in schools,” says Mutawally. K-12 teachers across the board “can help promote and support physical wellness in schools by incorporating physical activities into classroom lessons,” she explains. “Implementing energizers—physical activity breaks—every 20 to 30 minutes will allow students to unwind and move around.”

What does that look like in practice? The non-profit advocacy group Healthy Schools Campaign points to examples from the Chicago Public Schools district to show how it can be done.

In one case, a teacher begins each day with ten minutes of exercise: her classroom features pictures of different activities—yoga, toe touches, jumping jacks—and one student picks what the class will do that day. Another Chicago teacher incorporates yoga into their first-grade classroom, with the teacher leading students in stretches while they wait in line.

Among fitness advocates, there is a lot of talk about “brain breaks,” a term used to describe quick-hit activities that can be interspersed throughout the day to literally keep students on their toes.

These movement breaks “are classroom-based physical activity programs for kids to get them moving more,” according to the non-profit StandUpKids, which aims to get every public-school child at a standing desk within ten years. They say that a schedule of regular physical breaks “not only allows children to get their ‘wiggles’ out, but energizes them and increases their ability to focus on the next learning activity.”

Make it Real

There are plenty of examples that can help bring to life the idea of classroom-based physical activity.

TeacherLists.com suggests students “measure around the room,” using yard sticks and rulers to check the dimensions of chairs, desks, doors, and windows. They can do jumping jacks to practice math facts, or play “find the question,” searching for lesson-related questions that are written on index cards stashed around the classroom.

Action for Healthy Kids offers subject-matter specific examples:

  • A social studies teacher can incorporate the games and dances of the countries or time periods being studied.
  • Science teachers can have kids monitor their heart rates before and after short bursts of activity, or predict how their heart rates will respond to other types of exercise.
  • A reading teacher can ask kids to spell words by turning their bodies into the shape of each letter, or they can read books that include physical action verbs—wave, wiggle, hop, skip, shake—and have kids demonstrate the movements.

At the Colorado Education Initiative, experts urge teachers to make movement a part of the physical classroom. Teachers can, for example, post signs indicating types of physical activities and have students make a circuit: jog in place, jump in place, boxing jabs, etc., with kids spending a minute at each station.

When the non-profit Be Active Kids advocates the use of pool noodles—play horse on it, jump over it, have a sword fight with it—there may be a temptation to hit the pause button. Sure, students are active. But are they still learning?

Some say the best strategy is to tie activities to specific educational goals.

At the Education Development Center, for example, Arthur describes a station-to-station strategy for math teachers. “Break up the problems you plan to have students work on, and place them on index cards or chart paper,” she says. “Students should work on a center for a few minutes and then rotate to the next until they have completed all the stations.”

Nick Kline at Action for Healthy Kids proposes a variation: write questions on pieces of paper, ball up the papers and have the kids toss them around. “We play catch around the room, so that instead of answering questions one through three, now we’re answering questions four through six,” he says.

Looking to teach Newton’s Laws of Motion? “Physical activity brings these laws to life. A bowling ball will go in a straight line forever until it’s acted on by other forces,” says Terri Drain, president of the Society of Health and Physical Educators.

Math teachers can demonstrate graphing by having kids elevate their heart rates as a source of data. A science teacher can build an obstacle course to represent the circulatory system. “Language arts teachers could assign an essay where the kids describe how to perform a physical skill, like shooting a hockey puck,” Drain says. The kids have to get moving, “and learning becomes more relevant.”

On the Other Hand…

Some teachers bristle at the notion of having to devote classroom time to this kind of thing.

“Teachers are already responsible for too much,” says Dan Hankins-Wright, a math teacher in New York City. “It’s not my job as a math teacher to ensure that kids get their physical education in my classroom.”

Asking non-PE teachers to close the gap “is just adding one more thing that we have to be responsible for,” he says. “If the gym teacher wants to do some cross-curricular planning and we can support each other, I’m all in. I’m just saying that if admin cuts the gym program, they shouldn’t come to me and ask me fill in for a physical education teacher.”

Even fitness advocates say that the solution here lies not in classroom “brain breaks,” but in institutional change.

“The only long-term fix for this problem is real physical education,” says Jim Baugh at PHIT America. “When 90 percent of all children in America today are not active, ‘brain breaks’ are just a Band-Aid solution. The leadership has to dedicate time and resources to this, if they really want their schools to do better.”


Adam Stone is a seasoned journalist with 20+ years’ experience. He covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics.