Dear PE Teacher,
I remember the Presidential Youth Fitness tests from my elementary school days. Every year my classmates and I took fitness tests including running, sit ups, push ups, and chin ups. These tests took time away from playing the games we regularly enjoyed, like volley tennis or handball; they were boring; and worst of all, for some of us they were deeply humiliating. I am discouraged to realize that they’re still in use, and that my son has endured the same shame I experienced.
The fit kids know they’re fit and the not-so-fit kids know they aren’t – and so does everyone else. You know who’s who, and I’m sure you don’t have to administer the fitness tests to sort kids into categories.
The Presidential Youth Fitness Program (PYFP) website tells me their slogan: “Champion fitness. Champion kids.” Great idea, let’s champion fitness among kids! Fitness is crucial to good health and the benefits extend beyond the body, to good attitudes and academics. But the idea that these fitness tests will lead “to youth who are active for life,” not so much.
These tests do not motivate. To the contrary, they segregate and provide ammunition for teasing and self-deprecation. Kids are naturally adept at sorting themselves into categories: girls and boys; athletes and artists; hard-working and goofball; smart and, hmm, how about differently gifted? We learn early how to label and where we belong. From the fitness tests, I learned that I am not fit and I don’t fit in and, oh well, I guess I’ll just never be sporty so I won’t bother to try.
Sports were not a priority in my childhood home. I’ve always been bookish so my family encouraged my strengths and ignored my weaknesses. I tried swimming and tennis but no team sports and nothing long-term. Maybe I would’ve liked some sport, but I didn’t have the right opportunities to try. As I’ve gotten older I have found a healthy activity that works for me, walking/hiking, and I love how I feel when I get regular exercise.
That’s the key: exposing kids to the fun of playing and the positive health benefits that result. Kids play naturally; they want to swing and climb and slide and run, so do it! Play sports with them, but also play active games. Make up new games – it levels the playing field because nobody can be already good at a game they’ve never before played. Better yet, get kids involved in making up new games; tap into their creativity and you might engage some otherwise timid players.
Measuring kids against an arbitrary “health standard” during a time in life when their bodies are growing at an also arbitrary rate doesn’t motivate. Have you ever noticed the size discrepancies between kids in the same grade? Short and tall, skinny and wide, kids hit growth spurts at different times. Meanwhile their oh-so-fragile sense of self is also developing. Fitness testing made a major dent in my young ego, a dent I still struggle to look past.
As a parent, I have offered my kids the opportunity to be involved in recreational sports each season. They play for fun, to learn a game, to develop friendships, and to experience positive life lessons like teamwork and perseverance. Currently Tween plays baseball.
Before teams were formed all players and coaches came together to work on basic skills. The coach running the skills day told a story. His dad left their family when he was three years old; his mom did her best to parent three kids, two daughters and a son. But by the time he was seven this kid was, by his own account, “the biggest wuss in the county.” He’d upturn a game of checkers if he lost. So one day his mom pulled their car up to a park, pointed toward a man and said, “There’s your baseball coach. Get out,” and she drove away.
During their first game, the kid struck out. He threw the bat and batting helmet and stomped off. His coach grabbed him, made him pick up his gear, and then sat with him in the dugout. The coach asked about the kid’s favorite player, and then quoted some probably legendary stats about how many times that player struck out at bat. The kid was shocked, and then surprised when the coach demanded, “He’s been playing baseball for years. What makes you think you’re gonna be a better player than he is in your first game?”
Last summer that kid, now a professional youth sports coach running a successful sports clinic, took that coach to five professional baseball games and plans to do the same this summer. That coach instilled good sportsmanship and love for sports into that kid, and he changed the kid’s life.
Baseball is not my favorite sport, too long and slow to hold my attention. But I smiled my way through today’s game and can’t wait for next week. You see, this league promotes good sportsmanship and love for the game. Many of the players are new to the sport; they’re not great, but who cares? They show up ready to play and every adult out there – coaches and parents alike – shows up for the kids. I’ve never heard so many encouraging words flying around a sports field! Better yet, the kids mimicked the adults in their comments to one another: “Nice and easy,” “Just like playing catch,” “You’ve got this!” “Great swing!” “Good try.”
They’re playing new positions and taking risks, running, throwing hard, sweating, and best of all, having a great time together playing a game on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. That matters so much more than how many sit ups my kid can do, or maybe, can’t do.
Like anyone, kids want to do more of what they enjoy and less of what they don’t. So, PE Teacher, by all means, do some sit ups with the kids. Teach them correct technique, and explain the reason to do them. If you can, make it fun. But above all, emphasize play with kids. Teach them to encourage themselves and one another, teach them good sportsmanship, and help them find joy in active play. That will really make you a Champion for kids.