Teaching Kids to Think Outside the Gym, At School and At Home


gymclass“Okay, stand up, spread out aaaaaannnndddd stretch to the left. Now to the right. And now jumping jacks! Let’s count to 100 by 10s and then back down again. Ready? GO!”

Nearly 30 first graders stood, stretched, and did a couple of other exercises as their teacher’s aide led them. It took just a couple of minutes, and then they sat back down and resumed their work. I watched from the back of the classroom, quietly joining in on the calf raises when they did them. This the stretching, jumping jacks, counting by tens happened a couple of times in the two hours I was there to observe my son’s class during open school week recently. At the time, I thought the physical activity was meant to let the kids get their wiggles out so they could focus better on their work. But I realize now that these mini-breaks are probably an effort to get the kids moving when recesses and gym programs are not as plentiful or liberal as they could be for maximum health benefits.

My son’s class is lucky in that they have gym two days a week — not every class in the school has that schedule — and so his class gets closer than some others to the recommended 150 minutes of physical activity for kids in grades K-5. But even then, some days the only time they get to play outside during school hours is at lunchtime, when most of the time is spent nibbling on their sandwiches and avoiding their carrots (if my son is at all representative of the norm, anyway). By the time they finish eating, there are just a few minutes left to swing on the monkey bars and climb up the slides.

This lack of daily physical activity is unfortunate when the research makes it so clear that our kids need to move. They need it to keep their bodies healthy and their minds strong and focused. And because the need for more movement is so important, many schools and teachers are taking matters into their own hands according to a story published this week on — much as my son’s teachers have done. Instead of relying on gym class to provide the physical activity, some schools are asking their teachers to “supplement” PE by “thinking outside the gym.” Hence the 5 minute “stretch breaks” every hour in my son’s class.

Other schools have other approaches: walks around the school yard before the day begins, jogging incentive programs for older children, and integrating movement into reading and math exercises. I applaud the efforts on several levels: for one thing, it doesn’t “feel” like gym, which is a class many of us look back on with humiliation because we were picked last or were unable to throw or catch without feeling completely uncoordinated. For another, it shows that you don’t need special equipment or gear to “exercise.” I also love how, at least in my son’s case, they use the opportunity to practice some basic math skills. I think the rhythm of jumping jacks makes it easier to internalize the facts so they don’t have to think so hard about them. But most of all, I like the way exercise flows through their day movement is a part of learning and a part of life. No separation needed. Which is, I believe, as it should be.

However, I also believe that it isn’t really the school’s responsibility to get kids moving. It is true that my son spends more of his waking hours at school during the week than he does at home, and so it seems like the school should take some of the responsibility for his physical fitness. Ultimately, though, he is my son and if I want him to be healthy and to enjoy moving and running and exercising, it’s my job to give him those opportunities and to encourage him. I try to lead by example of course, but I also try to give him opportunities to “exercise” in ways that make him happy. Which is why at the end of nearly every school day, we stick around the playground so he can cross and re-cross the monkey bars, practice new tricks, and show me what he’s learned. Sometimes I spot him as he tries something new, and sometimes I am busy chasing his younger sister around the playground and don’t see a thing he does which is fine. I don’t need to coach him or cheer him on. I just need to let him discover how great it is to move, so that he can learn for himself that exercise aside from being a part of life and learning is its own reward.


photo credit: Lizzie Heiselt