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Why Bother with Physical Education?

Kathryn L. Stout, B.S.Ed., M.Ed.
Published: October/November 1999
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Often considered just one more thing that has to be completed, physical education is frequently pushed to the bottom of the "to-do" list in favor of the academic. But, by incorporating organized physical activity into the school day, you can actually increase your children's ability to focus on and retain information.

The increase in reported numbers of children having difficulty learning may simply be due to developing awareness in the field of special education. But, I can't help wonder if the numbers are also influenced by the fact that kids today are more sedentary. My generation came home from school, had a snack, and then went outside to play games, ride bikes, walk to a store-anything physical. Today's kids tend to watch television, play video games, or sit at the computer instead.

Dr. Kiiyo Kitahara developed an educational program for children with autism in Japan that had positive results and influenced U.S. programs U.S. in the 80's. The most impressive feature was his use of exercise. The children's daily schedule included three 20 minute periods of running, a gym period of gymnastics, martial arts, and aerobics, and an hour of outdoor activities-basketball, soccer, biking, and climbing on play equipment. Teachers in the U.S. that only incorporated the 3 twenty minute periods of running still reported an increase in students ability to focus on school work after the exercise.

Kids also need to build strength, balance, coordination, and flexibility as part of their overall development. All of these physical aspects affect them in ways that can help, or hinder, academic areas. For example, if muscles are weak, students may sit with poor posture, leading to fatigue more quickly when they must read or write. With fatigue comes difficulty in maintaining concentration, so the student might become restless, or simply fall asleep. Either way, the teacher is now faced with a challenge. Difficulties in coordination, which are helped by building strength, balance and flexibility, can interfere with a student's ability to manipulate objects, read left to right easily, follow sentences on a page, and/or maintain focus, among other things. This is one reason programs for young children incorporate a variety of physical activities, and why many children with learning disabilities benefit from physical and occupational therapy.

Various health studies throughout the late 80's and the 90's have determined that vigorous exercise sustained for at least twenty minutes at a time also helps (temporarily) decrease symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress. So, why not join your kids for several exercise breaks!! Everyone can return calmer and more able to concentrate on difficult tasks ahead.



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