Column: Gym class needs greater emphasis

Kids are getting fatter. The culprits are the same ones that plague adults: sedentary lifestyle and junk food. Given the slow progress in addressing vending machine temptation at schools, it appears a school-based intervention will have to address childrens’ inactivity.

Many of you probably share my dismal memories of gym class. Once kids get old enough to have a bad attitude about sports (which is pretty early), they are old enough to make physical education unpleasant for the weaklings. The weaklings (a group to which I belonged) band together, hating gym as a self-preservation mechanism – after all, we told ourselves, we are good in the important part of our academic experience, that is, the rest of it.

I did not consider until recently (while pondering another undeserved A in a photography class) that many people felt the same way about math; the academic subjects just came to me. The mixture of dread, boredom and frustration that was for me confined to second period on alternating days characterized most of each day for some kids. What is athletic ability but intelligence in movement? I just happened to have the kind of intelligence that teachers valued most. I had been a grade snob.

If we want to make gym a requirement, we’ve got to do it right. If we are to fight child and adult obesity, we have to make gym a time of learning useful, enjoyable skills. Many kids are turned off from exercise because their school gym classes are horrible experiences.

We can rightly preserve the integrity of grades in physical education by patterning it on the more traditional academic subjects. Schools should teach students how to play sports over time, the way recreational athletes learn, not in six-week units that consist of rotating basketball, softball, volleyball and track.

Give kids homework assignments – 20 crunches a night, 20 minutes of stretching or 20 pliés. Or let them check out athletic equipment the way they can check out library books. I realize the cost of athletic equipment is significant, but it’s not as expensive as textbooks, it doesn’t come out in new editions every five years, and gym units can be staggered, e.g., while one section of the class studies basketball, another studies tennis, and another studies jazz. If kids who play on sports teams are exempted from gym class, the school classes will be smaller and the pool of students more forgiving of neophytes.

If gym teachers truly want to help the sissies learn to appreciate their field, attitudes have to change. Teachers must not tolerate the Little League attitudes of the athletically gifted. We stratify academic classes according to ability. Why not do the same for physical education? Make it education, not exhibition. Let the kids who learned how to play soccer when they were three play together. Let the kids who just put on cleats learn how to dribble. The talented ones get to continue their growth as athletes; the novices get to learn in a nurturing environment.

The more I reap the benefits of exercise, the more I wish gym class had been made a pleasant experience for the kids to whom it did not come naturally. Its continued failure, whether the blame lies with unsympathetic teachers or unsupportive administrators, is showing in the significant population of unhealthy kids who desperately need its benefits.