In middle school, Jacob Haren thought physical education was short on variety and big on boredom. Now, Jacob is a high school freshman at a campus that's embraced "new P.E." In addition to team sports, students learn yoga, choreography, Pilates, and synchronized swimming. They even take part in a mini-triathlon in order to pass the class.
"It's a lot better than having to just run around the field. It makes it more exciting," says Jacob while taking a break from tinikling, an energetic Filipino folk dance that blends the basics of jumping rope with rhythm and fancy footwork.
Despite a decade of advocacy by supporters of more variety and less competition in physical education, Jacob's experience isn't typical in American public schools. In fact, physical education as a whole seems to be getting less emphasis across the country.
At stake, teachers say, is a generation of children whose P.E. classes will teach them either to love or hate exercise. And as obesity rates skyrocket among kids, a commitment to fitness may be more important than ever.
In the old days, "unless you were a really good athlete, you didn't like P.E.," says Holly Guntermann, an award-winning physical education teacher. Now, the goal is to turn kids on to physical activity "so they'll be able to continue and do it as an adult."
At Ms. Guntermann's school for Grades 1 through 8 in the southern California mountain town of Idyllwild, plenty of new P.E. concepts are at work: There's less emphasis on team sports and more on keeping kids moving. Guntermann never wants to see students waiting to bat in softball or standing motionless in the outfield – even the perennial children's game "Duck, Duck, Goose" is verboten because only two players get to run around at any one time.
"Everything is done in small groups. If you're going to play a soccer game, it's three on three in a very small field, so everybody's involved," she says. "It's more of an individual physical education now than physical education for the masses."
Here at Westview High School in Poway, an upscale suburb north of San Diego, new P.E.'s focus on variety is on display. Students like Jacob rotate through four types of activities each week, instead of the traditional approach of spending six weeks on a single sport. "If you don't like it, you can move on," Jacob says.
And one day a week is spent in a classroom learning about topics like nutrition, fitness, and exercise safety.
During a 90-minute class on a sunny May morning, freshmen students took part in tinikling, line dancing, and aerobics. They choreographed dance routines to hip-hop music and practiced synchronized swim routines. Those who play on the school's athletic teams favored simplicity – jumping rope.
At the end of the semester, all the students will run 1.5 miles, swim six laps in the 25-yard pool, and bike three miles.
"Kids aren't getting bored. They're staying fresh and being exposed to a lot of different things," says physical education teacher Paige Metz, whose program was honored as the best in California by a state association of P.E. and health teachers in 2005. The more activities the students learn, Ms. Metz says, "the more likely they are to find something that they like and are willing to do throughout life."
It helps, of course, that Westview High is in a wealthy school district that can afford a giant pool, extra equipment, and proper teacher training. But Metz says the "bells and whistles" aren't mandatory to make physical education work. Without them, "you can still do a program that stresses health and fitness."
The key is making sure students have plenty of activities to take part in, says Charlene Burgeson, executive director of the National Association for Sport & Physical Education (NASPE). "It's a turn-off when there's a one-size-fits-all approach and when there's very limited variety."
Organizations like Ms. Burgeson's enthusiastically support new P.E., and there doesn't appear to be any vocal opposition outside of critics who think schools are becoming a bit too wimpy. But Ms. Metz estimates that significantly fewer than half of schools are on board.
Educators say a variety of factors are to blame for the slow pace of reform: an intense focus on academic testing, lack of teacher training, financial woes, and the lure of tradition.
Meanwhile, physical education as a whole appears to be in decline in American schools. While experts recommend that children get at least an hour of exercise a day, fewer than one in three students attended a daily physical education class in 2003, down from 42 percent in 1991, according to federal figures.
Burgeson says the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind program is pushing schools to focus on subjects that are routinely tested, leaving little time for P.E. "There's a crowded school day with a lot of important subject areas, and schools are trying to figure out how to fit it all in," she says.
Only about one-third of states require physical education for elementary and middle school students, according to a new report by NASPE and the American Heart Association.
At the same time, health officials are warning of an increase in obesity in children. According to the report, an estimated 17 percent of American kids ages 6 to 19 are overweight, and another 31 percent are at risk.
What to do? The report, which says states are failing to adequately support physical education, urges all states to set P.E. standards and require students to meet those standards in order to graduate.
The report also recommends that all schools allocate adequate time (150 minutes per week in elementary school and 225 minutes per week in both middle and high school) for physical education.
"We're going to have to justify our own existence," says Joseph Culhane, an assistant professor of physical education at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., and a former P.E. teacher, "and show the public that we actually can get results, not just by increasing P.E. time, but by increasing it with quality programs."
For some Americans, memories of physical education classes are less than rosy. Plenty can remember getting smacked in the head during dodgeball, being picked last on the playground, and taking showers in the locker room in front of classmates.
But younger Americans have escaped these humiliations. In an effort to make physical education more enjoyable, teachers are chipping away at some long- standing traditions.
Take picking teams, for instance. No longer are the most uncoordinated students – or the skinniest or fattest – left standing alone after everyone else has been chosen. Nowadays, teams are chosen randomly, by odd- or even-numbered birth date, or by the number of letters in each student's first name. "We have been emphasizing enjoying [P.E.] at whatever level rather than being turned off because they're the worst one in the class," says Holly Guntermann, a physical education teacher in Idyllwild, Calif.
Locker-room showers are another rare sight. Thanks to concerns about privacy and lawsuits, many schools don't require students to take showers, even though many P.E. classes now last longer than an hour, plenty of time to build up a sweat.
In fact, some newly built high schools only make space for a handful of showers in their locker rooms because so few students use them. Teens often slap on perfume or extra deodorant, although some teachers complain they need only sniff to determine who just came out of P.E.
Most controversial of all, dodgeball has found itself on the chopping block. A number of schools have banned the game, with critics calling it a dangerous activity that fails to teach fitness skills and victimizes weaker players.
The naysayers are "New Age whiners," scoffed Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly in 2001. He wrote: "You mean there's weak in the world? There's strong? Of course there is, and dodgeball is one of the first opportunities in life to figure out which one you are and how you're going to deal with it."
Dodgeball's defenders point out that the sport can be fun and safe if the right precautions are taken. The game also teaches competition, says Bill DePue, vice president of the National Amateur Dodgeball Association.
"Kids need to have some form or level of competitiveness in their lives," he says.
But Joseph Culhane, an assistant professor of physical education at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., thinks there are more important things to learn. "As I tell our students here, you need to promote cooperation more than competition," he says, pointing out that bosses want employees who can work with each other. "They have to make the decision where they stand on that."