Is Gym Class Just Another Place for Kids to Learn?

The sheer volume that kids need to learn these days made some schools feel that gym class might be a time they can no longer afford to lose to academics. But in one school, they are trying a different solution: learning while you exercise. That is the approach currently being tried at the Everglades Elementary School in West Palm Beach, Florida.

As Sharon Patelsky – the teacher who leads the unorthodox gym class – explains, she is a teacher first. That means all physical exercises, from stretching to running, are accompanied by vocabulary recitations, counting and and arithmetic.

Not that the radical new approach is universally popular. Both parents and education experts said that cramming this kind of learning into physical education classes takes away the only time the students have to relax and forget academics during the whole school day. Research coming out in the past few years has shown that allowing students breaks during the day, in the form of PE or recess, actually aids learning – with the positive outweighing any time lost to academics.

While generations of bookish but clumsy children who feared being the last pick for the dodge ball team may welcome the injection of math and reading into gym class, the push is also motivated by a simple fight for survival by physical education departments. As budget cuts force school officials to make choices between subjects, "it's just a way to make P.E. teachers more of an asset to schools and seem as important" as teachers in core subjects like language arts, math and science, said Eric Stern, the administrator in charge of physical education for the Palm Beach County schools, the country's 11th-largest school district. "We are taking away the typical stereotype of what P.E. used to be like."

Everglades isn't the only school in the country to bow to the reality that without adjustments, PE could be on its way out entirely. In Deep Creek Elementary School, in Virginia, students get practice in foreign languages while they warm up, counting reps in French, or Spanish. And those schools that eschew hybrid gym classes, instead take the hint from other subjects and test on them instead. Tests administered in schools in the District of Columbia, for example, will now include 50 questions on physical fitness and human health.

With parents and students rebelling against what they see as an excess of homework, some say that gym class assignments add to the busywork. "I never really learned anything from doing those papers," said Annie Beyer-Chafets, 16, a sophomore in Westchester County, N.Y., who recalls being asked to write an essay about a relative's lifetime sport choices last year.

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