Is PE failing our kids? A conversation between a parent and the experts sheds some light

We got a letter from Van Colden who is raising active kids and she had questions about physical education classes. We directed her question to PHE Canada, a national charitable association recognized as a leader in physical and health education. What follows is the conversation that resulted. Please note this article is much longer than what you may be used to seeing on our site. However, we thought it was important to keep this all together as one post. The goal is to inspire more conversations between parents, educators, and curriculum designers so that all kids receive quality physical education. 

I am an active mom and I believe in the importance of physical activity being part of a daily routine just like brushing your teeth and eating healthy. That’s why it breaks my heart when my child comes home from school and says that she hates Physical Education (PE) class.

Under the right conditions, she seems happy to do physical things at home, but she’s clearly not enjoying her PE class. I wonder if PE is failing our kids.

PHE Canada responds: Van, we are thankful for you and all parents who see the importance of inclusive physical and health education pedagogy in our schools. So, first and foremost, thank you for your letter. PHE Canada’s mandate is to champion healthy, active kids by promoting and advancing quality health and physical education opportunities and healthy learning environments. Healthy, active children and those who support them are our heroes.

PHE Canada believes that physical and health education is a fundamental right and advocates for quality programs, professional development services, and community activation initiatives, ensuring that all children and youth live healthy, physically active lives. As the needs of society have shifted, Physical Education has also shifted – the focus is no longer to prepare our youth for the military or varsity sports as it once was. Instead, we prioritize individual choice and empowerment to aim for the healthy development of the whole child – physically, socially, emotionally and cognitively.

To be sure, as the evolution of PE has unfolded there remains many barriers and challenges to realizing optimal PE programming in Canadian schools and your letter highlights many of them.

In your letter, you asked for an opportunity to ask some questions of those who write and plan the PE curriculum. PHE Canada is pleased to help share its knowledge so that you and other parents can advocate for quality PE programming in your children’s schools.

We have answered each question as posed hoping that it can provide the information and tools you will need to champion quality PE.

1. What is Physical Education’s purpose?

My understanding is that PE programs are offered in schools to promote lifelong skills to encourage kids to lead active lifestyles. On their website, Physical and Health Education Canada (PHE Canada) states:

“QDPE [Editor’s note: QDPE stands for quality daily physical education] ensures that all children who receive it have the opportunity to develop the knowledge, skills, and habits that they need to lead physically active lives now, and just as importantly, into the future. A QDPE school is one that values the importance of physical education to the complete learning of our children, and has engrained QDPE and physical activity into the foundation and culture of the school environment.”

I think that physical literacy, learning basic skills that can be transferred to a number of sports activities (such as jumping, throwing, catching, and running) is supposed to be emphasized in PE. If this holds true, then I am somewhat aligned on the purpose of gym class.

In our house, the problem is that PE does not improve confidence. In fact, I see a loss of confidence in trying new skills. I hear things like, “It doesn’t matter how hard I try, I’ll never be good at Phys Ed,” or, “I hate Phys Ed because I’m terrible at it,” or, “I wish we never had Phys Ed, it’s my worst class.”

PHE Canada responds:  We hear you, Van, and understand how disheartening this is for you and your family. Although education in Canada is provincially/territorially mandated, the aim of physical education – to help students develop the attitudes, behaviours, skills, and knowledge they need to lead healthy, physically active lives – is a national priority.

But saying this does not make it so.

Underscoring a student’s success on their PE journey is our ability to foster feelings of confidence and competence. Ensuring that each individual student has this opportunity requires excellence in teaching, quality resources, and strong policies that support regular and diverse opportunities to explore and participate. Once children feel more competent, their confidence grows. As their confidence grows, they are more likely to try new, more advanced skills and activities. Once they do this, they can reap the lifelong benefits of healthy and active lifestyles.

2. Is it the delivery of the curriculum that is not aligned with its purpose?

I can appreciate that it isn’t an easy job to deliver a physical education curriculum to kids of all different skill levels. Do teachers need more support or a curriculum that is more specifically outlined? Or, do some things need to be adjusted to minimize the negative impact that it has on kids with weaker skills?

PHE Canada responds: Great question! PHE Canada advocates for quality physical education programs and are guided in our work by the following principles:

  • Physical Education is a fundamental right for all students in Canadian schools.
  • Teachers must be knowledgeable, critically reflective, and passionate.
  • Programs are based on sound pedagogical principles and current assessment practices that address individual student needs.
  • Planned program activities are balanced, multi-dimensional, and culturally relevant.

By adhering to these Guiding Principles, a quality/comprehensive Physical Education program provides a foundation for the development of physical literacy; enabling students to live physically active and healthy lives.

PHE Canada recommends that such a program require the following as a minimum:

  • A minimum of 30 minutes of physical education every day of the school year.
  • Well-planned lessons incorporating a wide range of activities that address the provincial curriculum learning outcomes/objectives.
  • A variety of assessment and evaluation strategies that enhance student learning.
  • Emphasis on student learning, personal success, fair play, and personal health.
  • Adherence to provincial student safety guidelines.
  • Appropriate learning activities for the age/stage of development of each student that reflect current research and best practices.
  • Opportunities to be physically active beyond scheduled physical education time in order to realize recommended physical activity requirements for students (i.e. intramurals, extracurricular, school-wide physical activity initiatives (DPA), etc.)
  • Opportunities for student leadership development.
  • All students are taught by a qualified physical educator (as defined by PHE Canada).
  • Achievement of provincial curriculum learning outcomes.

3. Why is PE class so heavily weighted on team sports?

I love team sports. I believe that they offer valuable skills, however, I don’t think that they are necessarily beneficial for all kids, especially when there are other options for achieving successful integration of daily physical activity.

When it comes to team sports, my daughter is rarely on a level playing field. I encourage her to participate and I think she tries, but when she’s on a gym floor competing with boys and girls, who are significantly taller than her, she tends to steer clear from the action. Many of the kids who love the “team-based sport” gym days often participate in them outside of school, and so generally they have an edge.

What I see and hear is that going to PE class is an intimidating part of her day.

Team sports can be distressing to the point of turning kids off and having an effect opposite to what is trying to be achieved. You can give all the kids in the class a hockey stick to play floor hockey, but if the skill levels vary widely, then the kids who struggle will feel singled-out or self-conscious and come to dislike PE class even more.

If it’s important for kids to play team sports in school, then why not offer clubs or school teams and reduce the frequency that they are played in PE class? Maybe start an outdoor hockey game at recess? Kids could sign up to play. This way, they would be given the autonomy to choose to play or not to play.

PHE Canada responds: We believe schools play a vital role in inspiring kids to be active and can carry lifelong consequences when the mark is missed. All children should leave a physical activity setting feeling empowered and competent. We hear you, Van!

While it may be incredibly enjoyable for some students to engage in team sports, the complex skill set demanded in those pursuits may not be appropriate or compelling for all students. There are a wide variety of pedagogical strategies to support teachers in designing and implementing a PE program that is inclusive of all students and activities and level of challenge.

Underlying your question are some major challenges facing education: limited funding, larger class sizes, disparities between urban and rural schools, diverse student needs, and lack of support or access for teacher professional development.

All the factors influence a teacher’s ability to hit the mark with every student. With parents like you, teachers, boards and policy makers, together, all highlighting the importance of diverse physical education, we can start hitting the mark more consistently.

4. Why can’t PE have more goal-oriented tasks?

If you join a running club for the first time, you are taught how to run to successfully complete your 10 km. You learn how to pace yourself, you are taught to set goals, and you learn intervals and rests (often on a 10 min run and 1 min rest pattern). Some people never make it to 10 and 1. They stay on a 5 and 1 pattern but they all finish the 10 km on race day.

This supports a more individualized-based approach. Participants are taught to compete with themselves and personal bests are encouraged.

I see a lot of value in teaching kids how to self-manage a personal program. Say you spent time teaching kids how to set minute short-term goals for running, with an end of term 3 km or 1 km fun run. Kids could learn how to log their run/rest progress, how to fuel for runs, how to take heart rates, and how to stretch to prevent injuries. Students could gain valuable knowledge on how to set challenging yet achievable goals. They would walk away feeling good about themselves when they completed the run, no matter where they finished.

Do you want to add in some fundamental skills to promote physical literacy? Make the run an obstacle course and practice the basic skills in PE class.

PHE Canada responds: A quality physical education program supports individual development of physical literacy. We absolutely agree that it is vital to provide individualized attention and information to help each student set goals and progress along their personal physical literacy journey.

Providing the ideal learning opportunity for every participant in every environment (both social and physical) is a difficult task, regardless of individual ability. The key to success is taking the time to get to know each student as an individual – understanding their strengths, barriers and limitations – and providing them with meaningful participation opportunities where they feel welcome and supported.

5. Why doesn’t PE use more methods that could also teach life skills to get kids active?

Sometimes, the kids who have difficulty with a sports-based approach simply need someone to tap into their inner “active wants”. They may need different kinds of incentives to get moving. So why not incorporate other activities that could also teach some useful functional skills? That way, movement will come without them even knowing that they’re doing it.

For instance, orienteering or geocaching could fit in nicely. Arrange a geocache in the schoolyard. Kids could be placed on teams to work together. Not only would they be running around looking for caches, they would be utilizing critical thinking skills, team-based approach, and learning how to use technology. There are geocaches all over the world. They could be taught that even their neighborhood parks might have geocaches and be motivated to do something like that outside of school.

What about teaching survival skills? Or bike safety and maintenance? Or snowshoe at a local park?

If you can show kids that PE isn’t just about putting the hockey ball in the net or sinking the basket, then maybe you will draw some positive outcomes even from the kids that are harder to reach.

PHE Canada responds Absolutely, Van! Many teachers are very creative with their programming and PHE Canada encourages this. It would be great if the teachers reading this could share their creative programming ideas to inspire others.

We would love to post your question on our blog and get ideas flowing.

At PHE Canada we see Quality Daily Physical Education (QDPE) as a great time to engage students in creative PE pursuits that emphasize fun, fair play, self-fulfillment, and personal health. QDPE ensures a safe and positive learning environment appropriate for the age and stage of each student, all while instilling the habits they need to lead active lives for years to come.

6. What kind of message does it send when you cut PE class by 15 minutes?

This year, PE class was reduced by 15 minutes. Although I know that my daughter doesn’t enjoy PE class, I think that it’s a very important part of her overall curriculum.

What I see is that school resources are thin. In the past six years, PE class has had three different teachers, all who have been vice-principals. I believe that PE classes suffer because the instructors are overloaded with work requirements from their primary roles, in this case, school vice-principals. This could partially explain cutting PE by 15 minutes.

Whatever the reason behind cutting class minutes, it still doesn’t make it good practice. In fact, I think it exacerbates the problem. The message that it sends to students is that the first thing to be pinched out of a daily routine, when it comes down to the crunch, is physical activity. We know that people’s lives get busy, and so it shows that when life gets hectic, it’s okay to discontinue exercise and fitness. It sends the wrong message.

PHE Canada responds: It sends the wrong message indeed, Van. Quality Physical Education experiences have the opportunity to support the healthy development of the whole child (i.e., physically, cognitively, socially, and emotionally). It has the potential to instill the attitudes and behaviours they need to lead healthy, physically active lives. In addition to the many benefits children can realize as the result of participating in quality PE, students who receive regularly scheduled physical education classes maintain, and often enhance, academic performance (Chomitz et al., 2009; Sallis et al., 1997; Shephard, 1997; Trudeau & Shephard, 2008). Reducing PE time to dedicate hours in the week to other areas of the curriculum may, in actuality, undermine the performance related goals for those subjects. Movement and physical activity primes the brain to focus attention during more sedentary course work.

7. Why can’t we have a curriculum that ties together wellness concepts?

Spending time outside gets kids active. The negative consequences on health when kids don’t spend time in nature have been documented. So, why not improve on overall wellness while being active and take kids outside more often for PE?

What about organizing local hikes, or local park cleanups, or plant a community garden near the school? These activities could help change up PE class and give the kids that are less into the competitive sports-games something else to look forward to.

I think it is very valuable to make kids understand that not all physical activities require a competitive edge. We need to make them see the bigger picture. I think PE needs to explore how we can teach that.

PHE Canada responds Physical Education should prepare students for a lifetime of physical activity participation. In tandem with quality physical education, promoting a culture of wellness among the school community is the basis of teaching healthy lifestyle behaviours. Having healthy choices modeled both within and outside the classroom by parents, teachers, staff, and the community prompts students to mirror these behaviours in their daily habits – including in physical education class!

Employing a Healthy School Community model takes a whole school approach, puts the school community’s wellness at the forefront of their daily operations, and promotes lifelong, healthy behaviours for their students. Adopting a Healthy School Community models requires the support of multiple stakeholders and has the potential to achieve the healthy goals you’ve mentioned and many more for your school.

8. Other than a participation grade, how is the grading system helping to promote a lifelong interest in active living?

The grading seems flawed.

My daughter cringes at the thought of the PE teacher spending class timing how fast she can run across the gym floor, or how many baskets she can sink, or how many burpees she can do in a minute as an evaluative method. She will say, “I’m always last, it doesn’t matter how hard I try,” or, “I always have the worst times in the class.” This method of evaluation has a negative impact causing her confidence to plummet.

How can the curriculum work with kids like her to encourage learning skills but still assign a grade? Instead of timing kids against each other, individualized timed trials to achieve a personal best might be more rewarding. Teaching students how to time themselves supports self-evaluative measures and personal record keeping. Providing the right feedback could make all the difference in keeping kids moving in the right direction.

I realize that the grading system is difficult to tackle. Even though I think it should be heavily weighted on participation, this is also flawed, as it would give the kids that struggle with sports a disadvantage, if most days in PE are spent playing team sports or activities that they find intimidating. However, I am positive that it is possible to develop a successful schematic with improved individualized evaluative measures.

PHE Canada responds: Self-assessment is the ultimate tool to engage students in their learning. It has the ability to motivate and allows students to take ownership of the outcomes in their academic journeys. Using progressive and purposeful assessment tools as part of a quality physical education program encourages students to participate in their learning experience and make the assessment process positive, interactive, and self-fulfilling. PHE Canada’s physical literacy assessment tool, Passport for Life, is an assessment tool for learning, not of learning and is available to all teachers across the country to engage students in their learning and achievement in Physical Education. Every physical literacy journey is unique – students learn, develop and grow at their own pace. Each participant will have their own individual perspectives and experiences shaping their thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, ability and behaviours towards physical activity.

Rather than using population norms to determine what a participant’s competency level should be, it is important to assess the participant’s abilities and use this information to determine their current competency level. This information can help teachers and students set realistic, achievable goals and assess their individual achievement across lessons, units and the year.

9. Making PE inclusive for all students

Sadly, PE class remains a source of anxiety for my daughter and her sentiment is that she wishes she never had to go to another PE class again. In her case, and I suspect some others, PE seems to be failing in terms of improving confidence in fundamental skills. It might be valuable to develop a line of questions for interviewing students in confidence, to gain a better understanding of how they feel about PE class. The insight from kids might surprise us, as well as help us to improve programs.

PHE Canada responds: Like all other classes at school, PE translates into skills necessary to be competent, effective and resilient adults. The often overlooked value of PE though is that its benefits extend beyond the PE class, raising learning capacity in all other subjects.

Recent research on the brain and physical activity link is getting a lot of attention through ParticPACTION’s Brain + Body Equation report – indicating kids need active bodies to build their best brains. All kids deserve to thrive in mind and body. But in order for them to reach their full mental, emotional, and intellectual potential, their bodies have to move to get the wheels in their brains turning.

We thank you for your call to action – sharing this mission together is the fuel that drives our ability to advocate for and support those who strive for healthy, active children.

Are you a parent or teacher who would like to continue this conversation? Please leave your comments below. We’d love to hear from you!

4 responses to “Is PE failing our kids? A conversation between a parent and the experts sheds some light

  1. Dear Van, I’m so proud to say that you are my daughter 😀😁😁 really enjoyed reading your article and how you put your point across…so sad to see that Sophie and students like her don’t get the PH E classes they so deserve, hope PH E teachers reads your article and incorporates some of the strong points you’ve indicated, into their programs … LOVE Dad XOXO

  2. Thank you PHE Canada for your response. You raise many important issues including funding, rural and urban disparities, larger class sizes and so on. I love the idea of your Passport For Life Program, however, I’m not sure that these types of resources are trickling down to those who deliver the curriculum. I think further strategies are needed because though the resources are there, they seem passive in the sense that teachers have to go looking for them. Without PE specialists in schools, generalists or vice principals, minimize the role of PE because quite frankly, they don’t have time or the proper training to deliver it. I am confident that there are quality PE programs out there, but unfortunately, I am discouraged by the PE program that I have experienced thus far. My daughter will be taught to be active through other means because our family believes it is very important, but what happens to the kids like my daughter that don’t have the backing? Sadly, they will be lost in the system and will have a difficult time to see that active living can actually be fun.

  3. Though my children have grown up and out of the school system and I am not a teacher, I do rub shoulders with some rock star PE specialist and generalist teachers from time to time. So I know that Van’s daughter’s experience is not happening everywhere but it is disappointing to hear of it happening anywhere.

    Short of moving to a new school, are there some solution oriented options for Van and her family?

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