Just a little ping pong goes a long, long way

By , Education editor of The Christian Science Monitor

Dancing, singing games, gymnastics, day hikes, weekend camping trips, multiplayer games of "Capture the Flag," relay races, and ping pong. Some schools, of course, include one or more of there activities for physical education, but far too many do not.

Square dancing, folk dancing, tap, interpretive, and ballroom dancing are not only marvelous exercise, but provide youngsters with lifetime ability in one of the more interesting social graces.

The same is true for singing games, particularly for children in the primary grades.

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Gymnastics not only meet every requirement for physical education for youngsters, but teach a body discipline and control useful for ever after. And by not indulging in the competitive aspects, enormously imaginative programs can be used not only for athletics but for entertainment.

Day hikes may appear to be a luxury for the teachers and students who can afford to be away from the classroom for that length of time. Yes, for the gym period, a short hike might be taken, but how much more wonderful to go on a full day's outing with a master hiker, combining this activity with lessons in geography and orienteering, with poetry, with singing, with composition. The ways to enrich the curriculim on a day hike are many -- wanting only for the imagination of the teachers and pupils involved.

Overnight camping trips, while they can also be used to supplement and enrich class lessons, might better be seen, truly, as sound physical education. Teaching those on the outing how to use their bodies intelligently whether on water, land, in air, or even spelunking below ground.

"Capture the flag" and other games using as many as 300 or 400 children at once are marvels of strenuous physical activity as well as clever strategy. Is the school too large to divide into two teams? How about four?

And there's something wonderful for children who aren't particularly athletic to be included in a relay team with "one of the big-shot lettermen." A thrill to try one's hardest knowing that whatever you can do, you're forwarding the total effort of your team.

I was in a school for "school offenders" -- for students who "couldn't make it" in the regular junior or senior high school. It had what looked like six big classrooms.

Almost no noise could be heard from five of them as the principal and I passed by the doors, but we could hear the din in the sixth from down the corridor.

Sensing my puzzlement, the principal explained: "It's the ping-pong room. If one of our boys or girls thinks he or she's frustrated, they don't have to ask permission to leave a class. They just notify the teacher as they leave that they'll be in the ping-pong room, and there they play for a moving school ladder.

"At first, it's the worst offenders who play the best (in part because it's the most) ping pong, but as the year progresses and the kids mature, it's the cool ones who edge their way up the ladder until they graduate out of here and back into their own schools.

"Then the scramble is on all over again to rebuild the ladder."

I asked if any other game would work as well, like the ubiquitous basketball hoop.

"Nope. If you're tall, you're better. And maybe you do or do not have access to one after school hours.

"No. The kids who come here don't have ping-pong tables in their homes, and generally no easy access to a table. And ping pong takes an enormous amount of energy.

"We call it our PE pacifier!

"And it seems to do the trick.

"In fact, if you were to ask me, I would tell you that if every junior and senior high school filled the baskeball gym floor with ping-pong tables and ran all kinds of ladders and gave ready access to the room that we'd be right out of business here."

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