The XX Factor

Despite Shrinking School Budgets, Kids Still Want P.E., Even at 7 A.M.

Michelle Obama Move Your Body campaign
Michelle Obama sits in on a physical education class at New Hampshire Estates Elementary School in Maryland

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

Physical education is a proven winner in schools. Most states mandate it, and with good reason: Research shows that good P.E. classes improve concentration and test scores, and reduce disruptive behavior. Anecdotally, it does something equally important, and for me, surprising: It raises kids’ enthusiasm for school.

So even as schools with limited budgets, time, and space find themselves cutting P.E. (a recent audit of 31 New York City elementary schools found that not one—not one—was meeting the state’s minimum physical education requirements), the New York Times reports that city schools are finding creative ways to bring it back. Teachers slot bursts of activity in between classes and tests and find grants for rock walls or exercise machines to maximize limited space. What’s really striking is how effective these efforts are. One school had 40 kids from just two grades showing up voluntarily every morning at 7 a.m. for a running club. Another raised attendance on the day before vacation (a day of frequent absences) to 90 percent by filling that day with jump-roping, hula-hooping and relay racing as well as classes. These kids love P.E. My kids love it, too: My two elementary school students both say their favorite part of school is “P.E.!”

Which I cannot imagine. My memories of school P.E. include every one of the classic horror stories: the unclimbable rope, the vicious dodge-ball-wielding coach, the softball bat to the head from standing too close to the batter. You could say that I was the least athletic kid imaginable, but it wouldn’t really be true: I’m a very active adult who helps coach several kids’ sports (but not softball). What’s true, I think, is that P.E. has changed. It’s no longer a place for the obvious athletes to do well, but a space for all kids to enjoy, geared towards good health instead of achievement—which makes it all the more important that we not lose it.

Who wouldn’t be impressed by these stories of teachers dedicated enough to keep providing P.E. to the kids outside school hours and beyond school budgets? But let’s not lose track of the underlying problem: Those creative efforts are needed because the schools themselves aren’t living up to their mandates (and not just in New York City). If physical education is important enough to be a required part of the curriculum, schools need to be given the resources to make it happen.