Jumping jack flush

Gym: In creative `new' phys ed classes, a generational shift away from calisthenics and games that favor better athletes is showing itself to be good for all.

June 02, 1999|By Kathy Boccella | Kathy Boccella,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA -- It's a beautiful spring day, perfect for riding a bike, which is what the class of eighth-graders at Maple Point Middle School is doing. They whoop and holler as they crash through woods behind the school and lunge toward a steep hill.

Sweating and panting, the bikers pedal furiously up the hill as their teacher shouts at them to shift gears.

"If a 51-year-old lady can do it, 12-year-old kids can do it," says gym teacher Jane Gibbons, laughing as she reaches the crest of the hill -- the only one to do so.

This is gym?

You bet it is. It's a kinder, gentler gym class than in years past, when the jocks excelled and the rest -- you know who you are -- were humiliated. Old standbys like dodge ball are out. Activities that challenge the mind and body -- think wall-climbing, yoga and in-line skating -- are in.

The philosophy behind this Gen Y gym is to shift from competition and calisthenics -- great for the athletically gifted -- to fitness and self-improvement -- great for everyone. The goal is to inspire a lifelong love of activity and fitness rather than to create star athletes.

"The trick in contemporary physical education is to develop habitual movers," said Charlie Schmidt, lead physical education and health teacher at Neshaminy School District. "How do you get somebody to want to move every day, rather than the way we do it now -- go from chair to chair to bed. That literally shortens life."

The "new P.E.," as it is called, is gaining favor with schools across the country. Mindless exercises and traditional games are being replaced with biking, skating, canoeing, weight training, wind surfing, fitness walking, camping, swing dancing and tai chi.

Teachers hope these fun, stress-free activities will reverse the trend toward sedentary living -- and fatter children -- and get students excited about fitness and health.

"The majority of students are not going to become professional athletes, even college athletes," said Jane Driscoll, health and physical education instructor at Van Sciver Elementary School in Haddon Township, Pa. "We want to develop people who feel comfortable as they go through life doing various activities."

Gone are the days of "rolling out one ball for 50 kids. Usually every kid has a piece of equipment in his hands," she said.

And when students do learn traditional games such as volleyball, they're more likely to stand in a circle and hit the ball in the air than face each other across a net.

"They're competing as a team to see how long they can keep the ball up rather than against each other," Driscoll said.

It's hard to say how many schools are adopting the new regimen, but many are doing "breathtakingly creative things," said Howell Wechsler, a health scientist for the Centers for Disease Control who focuses on physical-education issues.

Given the epidemic of childhood obesity -- one in five U.S. children is overweight -- Wechsler said the CDC recommends that schools implement daily physical education.

Games that single out the weak and reward the skilled should be replaced with activities that let children participate at their own levels, he said.

Some children "shouldn't be standing around while others play. They shouldn't be eliminated from games. We need to get rid of that old boot-camp mentality."

That works for Neshaminy, a district of more than 11,000 students in Bucks County, Pa., outside Philadelphia, where students choose from a variety of kid-pleasing classes. The district started its program three years ago. Before that, team sports were the core of the phys-ed curriculum.

"We used to see it as our job to run them and make them fit," said Schmidt, who implemented the changes. "Now we view it as our job to give them the tools to want to go out and do it on their own."

Students climb walls, skate, ride bikes, take fitness walks, play golf and Ultimate Frisbee, find their way through the woods using maps, train with weights, and canoe in the pool -- all for credit. And while they still run laps around the track, they wear heart monitors so they can watch their progress.

Students, Schmidt said, "are much more receptive" to the new programs.

Neshaminy High School teacher Dave Coll, a mountain climber whose shaggy hair and beard fit his role as the "adventure" gym teacher, said students like wall-climbing so much "they'd still be climbing when the bell rings" if he'd let them. Which is not the sort of problem he'd encounter if they were doing push-ups.

This shift in philosophy comes at the same time that many school districts are nibbling away at exercise programs to make room for more academics. Parents and educators often view physical education as a frill, not as valuable as, say, computers, arts and languages.

"We look at the academics as all-important, but the way we see it, if you don't have your health, nothing is important," said Becca Lieb, chairwoman of the health and physical education department at Radnor High School, where students can golf, skate, whitewater-raft, windsurf in the pool, or work out in a fitness center -- but just three out of every eight days.

Pub Date: 6/02/99

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