My goal is to convince and inspire you that physical education should play not only a cursory role in your [home]school but an integral one. We’ll take a look at what physical education is — and is not — and why it is important to emphasize if our goal is the development of the complete person.
Why Physical Education is NOT Specialization
First, then — what is physical education? It’s a fairly broad subject, but is generally accepted to be one that promotes physical fitness in a school setting. While definitions of what does and does not promote fitness may vary, essentially physical education/physical fitness promotes the healthy use of our bodies with emphasis on an active lifestyle to promote good health over the course of our lifetimes.
What is not physical education? One thing it is not is organized sports in isolation. While this is an acceptable supplement to physical education in your school, it should not entirely replace it. Too often playing sports — especially emphasis on a single sport — fosters imbalances which lead to altered body alignment, which sets the stage for the development of injuries. Specializing in a single sport — and even worse, a particular position within a single sport — at a young age is a recipe for disaster. Rather than leading to a healthier body it can lead to a host of lifelong injuries. We’ll spend some more time on this idea in a future post.
Spending time doing only one thing is not physical education. “Just” cardio. “Just” lifting weights. “Just” cycling. As with specialization within a sport, emphasizing one form of movement at the expense of another will not amount to becoming physically fit. In education we talk about developing the whole person, and in its component part physical education we must be sure to address the whole body.
Yesterday I observed first hand the concern I have with early specialization in sports and overemphasis on one type of movement over another. The temperatures warmed enough to allow us to play outdoors and I wanted us to take advantage of this opportunity before colder weather hit. I created a Jedi Training Center for my Star Wars obsessed boys, ages 5 and 8, which quickly drew the attention of other children in our neighborhood. I elevated a wood beam on top of two empty 5-gallon buckets. I made a hole in a tennis ball and ran some rope through it. I flung the rope over a low tree branch and tied the rope around the trunk of the tree. The boys traversed the wooden beam while attacking the swinging ball with their light sabers, having a blast while developing core strength, balance, and hand-eye coordination.
Another element of our Training Center made use of the remaining rope I had on hand with which I created a tightrope elevated approximately one foot above the ground. I accomplished this by tying the rope around two tree trunks a few feet apart. I added a second rope a few feet above the first for the boys to hold on to while walking across the tightrope.
Finally, I rested the upper portion of a ladder on the cooler we had handy in the backyard. This was placed next to a chain link fence that the boys opted to climb over after crawling up the ladder – an added bonus for which I hadn’t planned.
They had a blast developing upper and lower body strength, cardiovascular fitness, flexibility and core stability. Was this physical education? Absolutely! Did they realize it? Not at all. Would it count as P.E. in our homeschool records? Without a doubt. Labeled as two hours of strength and conditioning it fits the bill to a T. Obviously there are safety issues with our Training Center that I would have to iron out if it were to remain a permanent feature in our yard. It is not for the faint of heart — or for unsupervised play! — but it was a big hit yesterday.
But wait — what was the observation I made that confirmed my concerns about overemphasizing one activity over another? One child who joined in our fun is the local basketball star. This 12-year old boy is out on the court for hours a day in all kinds of weather — and he is good. He is a joy to watch on the court and he is an inspiration to my boys to work on their basketball skills. When he saw the fun we were having he ran over to take part. Being the star athlete that he is he thought he would be able to participate in Jedi Training to an even more skilled degree than the younger kids. I certainly thought that would be the case.
Imagine his surprise when he couldn’t keep his balance on the beam and strike at the ball at the same time, and his shock when he couldn’t make it across the tightrope without significant difficulty. At first I, too, was surprised — but then it dawned on me. This wonderful athlete lacks total physical development. He is so driven on the basketball court and so focused on developing those sport-specific skills that he has neglected the development of other general elements such as balance and core strength. There is no carryover from a specific situation, such as basketball, to a general one. However, if we develop the skills on the general level through well-rounded physical education programs then this will translate into solid sport-specific skills when the time is right.
As with so much in life, variety is key. We should offer our children a wide number of movement experiences to ensure their optimal physical development and to promote well-rounded fitness and health. But how? Truly — you are only limited by your imagination. Setting a timer and “exercising” for 30 minutes is only one snapshot of what fitness might look like. Family walks are one great way everyone can incorporate healthy movement into their day.
Creating obstacle courses for the kids, playing games like tag, climbing trees, swinging on monkey bars, human wheelbarrow races — these are the things that should comprise the physical education of our children. It has to happen consistently, though, to qualify as such. Feel free to supplement with a soccer or basketball league if your child demonstrates the desire to participate. Just don’t limit physical activity to these practices, which happen two to three times a week. Your children need vigorous movement in a variety of experiences for a minimum of an hour every day to promote optimal bone growth and muscle development
The Discipline Connection
One key element of physical education regardless of the form it takes is discipline. Daily physical activity won’t happen without it. Discipline is a virtue that we all wish we had more of, and it is a great gift we can instill in our children. Making daily physical activity a habit in your home is one means of promoting this virtue that will offer a lifetime of reward.
In The Liberals Arts Tradition, Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain write:
[T]he mental discipline and focus required in athletics has implications for the discipline and mental focus required for academic study. Physical discipline produces self-control, while perseverance through difficult activities produces patience and creates habits of hard work in attaining goals — virtues that are as invaluable in the classroom as they are in an athletic event.
Physical education in the classical sense is referred to as Gymnastics. While this term tends to give many of us a visual of short muscular girls flopping around on mats or doing unimaginable leaps and sticking landings on a narrow beam, historically speaking this is not what the term Gymnastics was originally intended to convey. Rather, Gymnastics referred to the physical development of the whole person. If a person is body, mind and soul then they cannot be fully developed without addressing all components.
The Making of Heroes
Finally, I’ll close with a theme that Brandy has discussed on Afterthoughts in the past: the goal of physical education being that of raising heroes. Future men and women of virtue with bodies as fit as their minds to prepare them for the role of world changer through servant leadership. It’s a big job — and they’ll need a lot of strength and endurance for the long haul ahead of them. As parents and educators it is our responsibility to nourish this aspect of their development by providing them with a movement feast just as we lay before them a feast of ideas in an effort to nourish their minds.
I’ll be spending time here at Afterthoughts regularly in 2016 and I look forward to discussing the role of health and fitness — “physical education” — in our [home]schools with you. Some ideas I plan to address include Swedish Drill in a CM education (Interruption: would you prefer a lot of the Swedish Drill information found in future posts in one easy to read place? My eBook Swedish Drill Revisited is 50+ pages of Swedish Drill information, a complete open-and-go curriculum that will assist you in instructing your children two complete Swedish Drill routines. It’s entirely self-contained and has everything you need to make Swedish Drill happen consistently in your homeschool or co-op. Click here to read more or here to see sample pages or click here to purchase. Now back to your regularly scheduled blog post), the pros and cons of team sports, incorporating fitness on days we must stay indoors, etc. If there is anything particular you would like to discuss please be sure to leave me a comment so I can make it happen!
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