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Why PE Needs to Remain a Priority in Schools

Uncertainty and anxiety still weigh heavily on the shoulders of parents and educators across the country following spring school closures. This fall, they face even more challenges navigating a back-to-school season unlike any other. Instructional models vary from district to district, and in many cases school-to-school – from fully remote to hybrid, and everything in between. And we’re already seeing models change at a moment’s notice.

So where does this leave physical education (PE)? Again, it depends. Some schools have cut PE out of the timetable or even de-funded PE programs in the face of budget constraints. That may seem like an easy decision against core subjects like English and math, especially due to safety concerns. However, those who truly understand the benefits of PE would argue that it’s a short-sighted decision, which may have unintended consequences that go far beyond the physical impacts. 

Importance of exercise

Exercise is more important than ever as it can reduce stress, prevent depression, avoid weight gain, and boost the immune system. A 2019 study found that children who reported no daily activity were twice as likely to report mental health problems, specifically related to anxiety and depression. According to the Aspen Institute, regular physical activity has proven to help develop character skills, including goal-setting, leadership, and confidence that benefit performance on the field and in the classroom. 

This academic year, due to the psychological impacts of the pandemic, there is a larger focus on social-emotional learning (SEL). This framework focuses on competencies like self-management, social and self-awareness, building positive relationships, and making healthy decisions. 

A PE class is a natural place for SEL to take place and we’ve worked with many PE teachers who, long before the pandemic, embedded strategies to build SEL competencies. It’s the mental strength and resilience part of PE that is often overlooked.

Conducting PE safely

Can it be done safely? We must all follow the rules. Masks, social distancing, and no equipment. Identify school spaces, both indoors and outside, where PE can take place and choose the activities wisely. 

Like many other organizations, we’ve modified our program’s physical activities for educators to ensure they can be done safely in a variety of in-person and home settings. It has been inspiring to see our Rising New York Runner sites face these new challenges head-on and prioritize PE for their kids. 

Let’s not use the excuse that there is not enough time in the day. Instead, we must make the time and design around time constraints. Experts recommend kids get 60 minutes of exercise each day to positively promote physical and mental strength. Even before the pandemic, only 24 percent of children were meeting this benchmark. 

As a community of caring adults, we owe it to our kids to figure out how to give them this time back in their day. 

As a professional who has worked in educational programming for more than 20 years, and the parent of a third-grader, I challenge organizations and parents to support teachers as they continue to prioritize and balance our children’s physical, mental, and social-emotional development during these difficult times.

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