One of the academic trends that I find particularly disturbing today is the de-emphasis on physical education in the schools. I, and undoubtedly many others my age, remember when we were in school and Phys Ed was not a course option. It was an absolute requirement. As much a part of your educational curriculum as English, math and social studies. You took it for your entire four years of high school and every other year before that in elementary school and junior high. And, I strongly believe, we were all better off for having taken Phys Ed.
Whether you were athletically inclined or not, your overall health benefited from the physical exercise you got in gym class. Those who were athletically inclined often translated their love of physical activity into a lifelong commitment to keeping fit and healthy. Many of them went on to teach Phys Ed to others.
Most of us who are in our 40s and up remember those calisthenics we were required to perform as a warmup for our gym activity of the day. We remember those laps we ran around the track and the various individual sports we played during our 45 or 50 minutes of gym class. We remember “suiting up” and getting our workouts and feeling sweaty but exhilarated afterward. For some of us, Phys Ed ranks high among the most memorable experiences of our youth.
Today, unfortunately, fewer and fewer students are experiencing that feeling. Many states have drastically reduced or, in some cases, even dropped Phys Ed requirements for high school students. And, in some of those states where Phys Ed has been de-emphasized, fitness test results show an alarming rate of failure. In a recent year in California, for instance, 77% of fifth, seventh and ninth grade students failed fitness tests. Phys Ed, according to a newspaper column I read recently, is becoming “Fizz Ed.” Many schools nationwide have allowed soft drink companies to place dispensing machines in the hallways and students are consuming those sugar-laden beverages at fearfully high rates. This, the columnist noted, could well be a contributing factor to the explosive growth of diabetes and obesity in today’s children. “The unfit are left alone in fizz ed . . . schools with plenty of soda and no exercise,” he astutely observed.
In years gone by, if a kid wanted to hone his baseball skills he joined the Little League or got together with his friends down at the schoolyard or in the sandlot. Kids honed their skills with teams at the local gym or playground. Basketball courts were commonplace; nearly every schoolyard had one. Today, according to one of the experts quoted by the columnist, “kids don’t go to the playground anymore.”
Phys Ed and playground and gym sports taught kids the importance of working together as a team toward a common goal – namely winning the game. But it also learning “good sportsmanship” and “teamwork.” It was a group effort that entailed sharing possession of the ball. In some cases, such as volleyball, it encouraged parity and gender respect between the sexes. Kids just aren’t getting that experience very much anymore and it’s sad and tragic.
What is the answer? Obviously that lies in the hands of the schools and the boards and administrators who run them. I hope that someday soon – the sooner the better – this unhealthy and unfortunate trend can be reversed. Otherwise our young people, the future of our nation, are at risk of getting “soft” and increasingly un-physically fit. This, obviously, is not a situation in which the world’s most powerful and stable nation wants to find itself, especially as more and more countries begin looking to us for leadership, appreciation and guidance. We need to be setting the example and, to do so, we need to restore Phys Ed to its former place of importance in our schools.