Physical fitness is much more than a game: one educator's view

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

``Here's the ball. Go play.'' That's the kind of instruction Lou Pebbles just doesn't want to hear anymore in physical education classes in California.

As the state director of physical education and athletics, Mr. Pebbles is working to include physical education in the educational reform movement now under way in California schools.

Physical education should not be seen as an extracurricular activity, according to Pebbles, but as an integral part of the school's program, just as important as reading and mathematics.

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``People need to take it seriously,'' he says.

The first step was taken last year when the state legislature passed an educational reform bill requiring two years of physical education for high school graduation.

``The question since then,'' says Pebbles, ``is `what does that mean?' It should mean two years of quality physical education. Not two years of here's-the-ball.''

What he has in mind is a carefully planned program that both develops physical abilities and teaches students how to stay healthy and fit throughout their lives.

For high school students to get two good years, they have to have some good years of physical education during the elementary and middle school years, Pebbles said.

``What we are trying to do is reform all of it,'' he says. ``You need to build a solid foundation. You can't build the roof first.''

For now Pebbles is focusing on improving programs in the earlier grades by providing in-service training for classroom teachers.

``Few classroom teachers are trained to teach P. E.,'' he says, ``but it is something they are all expected to do.''

The situation has been made worse by budget cuts that have forced younger teachers out, leaving older teachers who have had even less training and interest, he says. Those same budget cuts left physical education teachers in the later grades with large classes of 50 or so students, making individual attention difficult.

What every school needs is a coordinated curriculum that starts with kindergarten.

Students need to work on developing basic movements, perceptual-motor skills, balance, endurance, and agility even during those early years, Pebbles says. And they should also be learning simple games and activities like square dancing.

In the upper elementary grades, they should continue to work on fundamental skills, he says. Programs should introduce team sports and competition; it is at this age that children begin mastering specific sports such as swimming, dance, or gymnastics.

By the time students get to high school, they should be ready for advanced skill development, he says.

Unfortunately, with the exception of the athletically inclined children, most students haven't mastered those basics and see physical education as either a source of humiliation or as a waste of time, Pebbles says.

``If they haven't done all those things first,'' he says, ``they have a hard time catching up.''

Part of selling the importance of physical education to both the community and other educators is emphasizing that physical education is also social education, Pebbles says.

No other school subject requires as much cooperation among students, he says. It is during physical education classes that students learn responsibility to other team members as well as to accept their own and others' limits.

``What the public isn't aware of is that kids who are physically fit actually do better academically,'' Pebbles says.

``People think it's just games,'' he says. ``But it really isn't.''

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