Physical education (PE) is more than suiting up in gym clothes to run on a track, learning the basics of different sports or participating in the presidential fitness test. It involves a lot of physical activity to be sure, but PE curriculum also includes mental, social and emotional education.
“A successful PE program can literally change the way a school functions as a whole,” says Erika Mundt, who was the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE America) High School PE Teacher of the Year in 2018 … “PE involves cooperative learning, acceptance of yourself and others, learning to try new things no matter how good you are, communication, and problem solving.”
Mundt also says physical activity during the school day is essential for student mental health, especially coming out of the pandemic. “I just hope that school districts and administrators take into consideration PE when they are trying to catch up with the pandemic,” says Mundt, “and realizing that cutting PE and cutting activity time isn’t the way to get students to learn more. PE is an efficient way to help kids learn more.”
Kids Learn Early on That Movement Makes Them Feel Happier
They learn more, and stress less, says Cara Grant, president-elect of SHAPE America and pre-K-12 curriculum supervisor for health, PE and adapted PE for Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. “As young as early elementary school, students discover how physical activity helps them feel better,” Grant says.
One of SHAPE’s sample lessons for elementary PE includes an emotional check in where students select an emoji that represents how they feel at the beginning of class and at the end. More often than not, kids who first selected a sad or tired emoji chose a happier and more excited one at the end of class.
“In younger grades, we ask students, ‘why are we moving? How does that help us when we don’t feel great? When you don’t feel great but go play at recess, you feel better. How does that apply to why we move?”’ Grant explains.
Students Develop New Skills That Build Over Time, Increasing Their Confidence and Mental Health
Part of SHAPE’s mission is to help students become physically literate so that PE is no longer just about getting kids to move “x” number of minutes per class. Those lessons get more sophisticated as students get older, but good PE programs all instill a feeling of confidence and competence in movement rather than skill at a certain sport or athletic feat.
“We want students to challenge themselves and learn about what their bodies are capable of no matter their ability or background,” Grant says. “We want them to explore movement, to feel more successful over time and know that they are growing.”
All of this, she says, benefits mental health because it builds self-confidence. Quality PE programs, according to SHAPE’s standards, also promote positive personal and social behaviors, teaching students how to effectively communicate and resolve conflict. Kids learn to take turns, or agree on the rules of a game, for example.
Students Create Lifelong Habits That Promote Their Well-Being
Learning a variety of aspects of physical education teaches students to how to be resourceful, mindful and healthy. Mental practices such as positive affirmations and positive self-talk are necessary when learning a new activity and pushing past initial challenges. Becoming intermediate or advanced in activities requires practice and making mistakes while learning.
“In PE, we celebrate all achievements, and make the class environment an enjoyable place where all kids feel welcomed,” says Mundt.