How many years has it been since you did a shuttle run, played dodgeball, or jogged a mile during gym class?
In that time, physical education has changed, says Cheryl Richardson, senior director of programs for the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE). “The focus is on engaging students,” she says, “so they’re learning confidence and competence in various movement skills.”
The shift isn’t just to get kids to burn some energy. It’s about preparing them for success, both in their health and their academic performance.
P.E. Lets Kids Try New Things
Gone are the days of playing basketball or badminton for 3 solid weeks, when you could hang out on the sidelines if you didn’t dig the sport. Today, gym class is about variety. Kids might spend some classes trying yoga, Pilates, or rock climbing.
Sound too out of the box? That’s kind of the idea, says Gregory D. Myer, PhD, director of research at the Division of Sports Medicine at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.
“A lot of kids specialize in a certain sport early, but P.E. gives them a broad exposure to many sports they wouldn’t necessarily try,” he says. “That can help them realize they love a new activity and teach them new movement skills that will help them throughout their life.”
P.E. Combats Childhood Obesity
Research has shown that gym class makes a difference on kids’ weight. A recent study from Cornell University found that phys ed lowered fifth graders’ body mass index (BMI) and their chances of being obese. Of course, obesity is a complex condition, and physical activity alone doesn’t solve it, Richardson says.
Still, “what P.E. provides is the opportunity to develop, practice, and reinforce healthy habits -- including understanding why it’s important to be physically active.”
P.E. Boosts Brainpower
“Parents often think their kids need more time to be in college prep courses, not physical education,” Myer says, “but they fail to realize the brain benefits associated with getting your heart pumping during activity.”
In one study, 20 minutes of walking increased children’s attention spans and helped them focus, even in a noisy setting.
“We know that when kids are active, it prepares their brains for learning,” Richardson says. Also, she notes, children who are more fit come to school more often and have higher test scores than those who are less physically active.
P.E. Improves Social Skills
Kids rely more on technology and gadgets than ever, which means most spend less time being active and learning to problem-solve actively, Richardson says. “So it becomes important to have that interaction during P.E.”
Science backs up those social rewards. Sixth-grade students who were active at least 20 minutes a day scored the highest levels of leadership skills and empathy in a study from the University of Michigan.
P.E. Complements After-School Activities
You already get your kids moving at home? That’s great -- it gets them closer to the 60 minutes of activity they need a day.
But it might not be enough. For one thing, because children spend so much time in school, they need to be active throughout the day, Richardson says, and they might not be moving much during recess.
Also, “parents aren’t necessarily skilled in teaching the movements that children need to learn,” Myer says.
Gym class teaches moves that build strength and coordination, which means kids can get better in other physical activities like running and push-ups. It’s important to learn those motor skills while children are young and their brains are still growing, Myer says.
P.E. Sets Kids Up to Like Exercise
Above all, today’s gym classes aim to set kids up with a lifelong love of fitness. And it’s important that it starts young. “Kids start to notice how they move when they’re 6 or 7 years old,” Myer says.
It gets even more important when your child starts middle school, when they become more aware of how their athletic abilities compare to their friends’. “It’s the age where kids in athletics start to get weeded out, and some kids realize they aren’t good enough. That’s when teachers need to be sensitive, and an individualized physical education class can help encourage them to stay active,” Richardson says.
To make sure your child is getting the benefits from their regular P.E. class, first look into what they’re learning. You can check the SHAPE website to see the national guidelines and gauge what should be happening during their gym sessions.
Then, if your kids aren’t enjoying the class, talk to their teacher, Richardson suggests. There may be something going on that could be solved at school, like bullying, or skills you can help your child practice at home to make him more comfortable in class.
Remember, she says: “Parents have a huge role in the development of their kids’ healthy habits.”