Sad Stat of the Day: Only 10% of American Kids Have PE In School

This was the take-away I got from an interview between First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Oz today:

While plugging her Let’s Move Active Schools initiative, Mrs. Obama shared a pathetic stat that a mere ten percent of American kids [in public school] have PE in school.

My jaw dropped. Only TEN PERCENT?! No wonder American kids are so obese; our kids are chained to desks all day, play video games by night, and we can’t even build physical fitness into the school day?! Insane.

I grew up in rural, northern New Jersey and from first grade on, in addition to having some form of PE every day, we had “Walk/Run” before lunch each day — where no matter the weather, we had to walk or run around this course before we could eat — and then had recess, after lunch. That guaranteed at LEAST one hour of physical activity a day per child … in addition to whatever we did at home (ride bikes, chase each other, organized sports, etc).

I’m the first to admit, I hated PE until high school. By then, I was a Varsity athlete and didn’t really care what anyone thought of me; I had my friends and that’s all that mattered. Of course, prior to that, gym class gave me the willies. It’s not that I was picked last for kickball teams or anything traumatic (I was usually picked towards the middle/end but never last) …It’s just I just was NOT coordinated, hated all sports and was pretty much unathletic (aside from dance, which unfortunately had no place in PE [well, til square dancing in high school, but I’ll save my “hick” gym class activities for another post]…). Bottom line: gym class intimidated me for most of my schooling.

That said, gym class taught me a lot of things.

1) Sportsmanship/team-building. For as Type A as I am about so much in life, I personally never cared about winning or losing when it came to sports … if my volleyball team lost, I certainly didn’t shed a tear, go home and whine to my mom and dad or hold a grudge against the other team’s captain. But some of my classmates were die-hard athletes who could.not.stand to lose. It didn’t matter that it was “just” gym class. They were born competitors. And because in gym class kids of all different levels participated in the same activities: softball, football, running … you name it … we all had to play together (unlike team sports where you have to try out to make the team and everyone was on a similar level). These die-hard classmates had to learn a two tough lessons. First, they had to play nice with people they might not otherwise associate with … people who might be better or worse than them. And second, they had to accept that sometimes they would lose … and needed to learn to lose graciously. [OK, they were taught to lose gracefully … not sure that part ever clicked for some ;)]

2) Confidence/self-esteem. Although gym class can be traumatizing for some kids — kids are mean, they pick on “the weak link” … gym class can also be empowering, especially when you have fellow classmates or a phys-ed teacher who really pushes you. I hated “Circus Training” (what we called Circuit Training) in middle school. Hated it. It was a crazy obstacle course made of stations that we all loathed. Yet I’ll never forget the first time I made it up and over the big yellow rope net. It had to have been sixth grade. I was petrified of heights and remember looking down on the huge blue mat, wondering how much cushioning it would provide if I slipped and fell … but then heard the encouragement of my classmates and teacher … lo and behold, I (and my fellow classmate) made it over. With wobbly knees and blushing cheeks, I sat down and sighed … all was right in the world. I’d done it! The next time we did Circus Training, I had no problems getting up and over. And then there’s this. True story: I ran the 800 in high school track and came in dead last every.single.race. You heard me. My coach — Mr. Deutch — was also my gym teacher. And he never let me slack off during gym class. He would push me … telling me he knew I could run faster, harder. And lo and behold, I did. I still sucked … but I didn’t care. Between track practice and gym class, my time improved. And with each race I ran, my confidence grew. I might not have been the best runner, but I believed in myself because people like Mr. Deutch believed in me.

3) Trying new things. When Mrs. G. told us we’d be doing a whole section on archery in junior year PE, I remember the whole class chuckling. Archery, seriously?! We were 16 and found this hilarious. Like we wanted to shoot bows and arrows! But to our surprise, it was really fun. And to my surprise, I wasn’t half bad! For someone with zero coordination with tennis, golf, and a variety of other similar sports, I had a decent arm when it came to archery. Of course, I haven’t picked up a bow and arrow since then … but it was a good learning experience. We’re not all natural-born athletes but different sports and athletic endeavors appeal to different people … and that’s what they were trying to teach us. There is something for everyone; you don’t need to be captain of the soccer team and star quarterback to be an athlete. So thanks, Mrs. G.!

The fact that only 10 percent of today’s youth have access to PE makes me so sad. The benefits of gym class go well beyond the obvious (physical fitness). Denying children PE only stokes the fast-growing blaze of childhood obesity. And what’s more, numerous studies have shown that kids who have a chance to be active during the day not only absorb more, but are better behaved and more alert than children who do not. So how can we let this trend continue?! Cutting PE programs is not the solution. If a school district needs to make cuts somewhere, PE should not be what gets cut. Love it or hate it, the benefits far outweigh the costs. When will we wake up?!

I love the fact that at Maya’s school she has recess twice a day — inside (gym) if the weather is bad but outside (playground) the majority of the time. But when she is in regular school (i.e., not preschool) … I won’t have control over if they provide PE or not. And that’s really disconcerting.

How about you? Did you love or loathe PE? Do your kids have PE in school?

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2 thoughts on “Sad Stat of the Day: Only 10% of American Kids Have PE In School

  1. When I first found out in college that not everyone had PE EVERY SINGLE DAY like I had, I was pissed. I hated gym so much (what fat kid doesn’t, really) and it seemed unfair that if I lived somewhere else I’d have had just that much less daily humiliation.

    Like you, I do think PE taught me about sportsmanship and team-building and self-esteem, but more from the reverse angle. I learned what I didn’t want to be like (i.e. the classmates who made fun of me and the gym teachers who looked the other way when it happened) or someone who didn’t give someone a chance just because they may not do as well or help us win. I learned how not to rock the boat, how to blend, how to hide, how to deal with shame in front of crowds…

    And it sounds awful… and it was… but in the end, these experiences build us up. I do not shame easily in public. I am kind and generous with other people (or I try to be, anyway). And, as overweight as I was, I can’t imagine how much worse it might have been if I hadn’t had gym every day. I also learned that I didn’t suck at everything involving physical activity – there were a few gym sports I loved and did well at (field hockey, for one).

    I think any life experience can have learning. And aside from the physical benefits, kids need a break. They can’t just be brains all day; it’s not healthy. This lack of PE actually worries me and is something I’ll have to keep an eye on for Nate.

    (I need to stop writing novels in your comments and just blog my responses. lol)

    1. No Candice! I love love love your insight!! Honestly, please keep writing! The hardest thing about blogging is seeing stats — knowing people are looking — but then hearing crickets. I appreciate you and your comments so much … so keep ’em up!

      I am so sorry to hear about your experiences (why oh why are kids SO damn cruel!?) but glad to hear that you were able to find some positive in the experience — how NOT to be. And glad to hear you discovered something you did enjoy and were great at. Hugs!

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