PE classes are evolving

When it comes to physical education classes, it’s not just the time that matters. It’s how you use it.

School divisions across the nation have been trying to combat childhood obesity by requiring students to spend more time in PE classes.

But a recent Cornell University study says that’s not enough.

Adding 200 minutes of PE per week translates to eight more minutes of exercise for girls and seven and a half more minutes for boys, the study said.

“The U.S. Department of Education has criticized PE for too often consisting of ‘roll out the balls and let them play,’ unstructured and unmotivated class time involving little vigorous activity,” Cornell professor John Cawley wrote in the study, which appeared in Education Next this month.

In response to a federal mandate, local school districts developed new wellness plans that addressed gym classes, school lunch and health education.

Prince William County’s plan included increasing PE time for elementary school students.

The plan prescribes two 45 minute PE classes a week for elementary school students, 45 minutes every other day for sixth- and seventh-grade students and 225 minutes each week for eighth through 10th graders.

But as the Cornell study advises, the county’s plan focuses not just on how much time is spent in the class, but what is done during that time, said Fred Milbert, Prince William County Public Schools’ Supervisor of Health and Physical Education.

“Just having more time to run around and play games is not enough,” he said. “Our wellness plan is encouraging more constructive and useful uses of time, not just more time.”

Milbert said the focus in the county’s gym classes is on teaching skills and educating students to make healthy choices.

“If you just teach a sport like soccer or basketball, you’re not reaching all of the students. You need to personalize it for the students, then it becomes more valuable,” he said. “We look for activities that meet the needs of all the students, not just the athletes.”