Why Physical Education class today is better than ever before

Why Physical Education class today is better than ever before

“Feel the sweat on my forehead!”

These are words that tell me I’m making a difference for my students. I’ve been lucky enough to teach physical education for 37 years in Manitoba, and in that time I’ve seen remarkable growth and change in a subject that was once hated and loved by students in equal measure.

Speak to someone who took physical education in the 1970s or 1980s and you are just as likely to hear them say it was a terrible, humiliating experience as you are to hear how empowering and fun it was. Many of today’s parents have memories of a sport model curriculum which allowed those who had strong fitness and movement skills to shine and those who didn’t to hope they wouldn’t be noticed. Fitness tests gauged your performance against a set standard and you either measured up or failed. There was little allowance for individual differences; it was a one-size fits all approach with a single measure of success.

To those parents who hated physical education: your children will not have the same experience you had.

The biggest change has been a shift from a sport focus in physical education to a wellness focus. There have been enormous strides made in our understanding of how children and youth develop confidence and competence in their fitness and movement skills. At the forefront is having fun as they learn new skills and viewing physical activity as enjoyable. Physical education class is unlike any other in the timetable. It is a place where cognitive, emotional, social, and physical development meet. And it is a place where the level of development can vary widely from student to student. It is a place of public performance and vulnerability, and it takes a committed, well-trained teacher to guide students through positive growth.

As a physical education specialist in Manitoba, I teach 250 students throughout the year. For at least 30 minutes 4 or 5 times a week I am able to individually interact with all of them. We have the time to learn physical literacy concepts and reinforce them through varied activities which allow them to practice their skills and become confident movers. My students know that when I praise them for their “swinging L’s” as they run by me that their arms are in the correct position. They know that when they gallop, the back foot “fox” can’t catch the front foot “rabbit”. Even by the end of grade one, they can coach me in how to do a proper roll ― busy hand, busy foot, bend down, draw back for power, aim, swing, release and point. They can balance on the floor, benches and gymnastics beams.

When they ask me to listen to their huff and puff or check their sweaty foreheads, they know these are indicators of work intensity and they are proud of what they have attained. The results of their fitness tests have allowed them to determine their personal level of fitness and develop activity strategies and plans to enhance personal results.

Those students who tell me that video games occupied their summer respond to their successes in physical education classes by being more willing to try using their movement skills. The child who had difficulty running is able to make a tag; a student who couldn’t throw a ball knocks down a target on the opposition’s side to win the game. My students with special needs are incorporated into games so that their contribution is as significant as the rest of their classmates.

As a result of success in physical education classes, I see 95 per cent of our student population participating in intramurals, and consistently see over 85 per cent of our middle years students participating in interscholastic activities. I see these students actively playing at recess times, not just huddled by a door. At community activity registration nights, I see those children that tended to volunteer to play goal because it meant not moving too much signing up for dance, gymnastics, karate, rugby, softball, soccer, and downhill skiing. Because they are physically literate, they are able to be what children should be: active, moving beings who excel at play.

Why is this? For one, from their first day of school in kindergarten to their last day in Grade 12, the majority of students in Manitoba are taught by a teacher with specialized training in physical education. Plus, the province has mandated a minimum of 150 minutes of physical and health education per cycle for kindergarten to grade 8, which means it is possible for a student to have physical education every day. In the high school grades, students are also required to take a health and physical education course each year.

Physical education is a subject unlike any other in the timetable. When taught by an enthusiastic, well-trained, and engaged teacher, it teaches children and youth the fundamental skills that can allow them to participate in a wide variety of activities, enhance their self-confidence, and build the motivation to move. When students succeed, there is a deep sense of accomplishment. They know they’ve mastered a new skill and they develop the confidence to take it one step farther. You see it on their face and in their step. And it’s what tells me that I’m making a difference in their lives.

Guest post by Jacki Nylen

Jacki teaches physical education at Tanner’s Crossing School in Minnedosa, Manitoba and is also President of Physical and Health Education Canada.

PHE Canada president Jacki Nylen


PHE Canada is the national voice for physical and health education. We work with educators and on-the-ground professionals to develop the resources, understanding, and networks to ensure that all children have the opportunity to develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to lead active, healthy lives, now and in their future.

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2 responses to “Why Physical Education class today is better than ever before

  1. I have to ask. What was humiliating about gym class in the 70’s or 80’s? I attended Junior & Senior High in the 1980’s, and even though I was far from the best athlete of any of the girls in my class, I loved it!

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