But with limited space, staffing and finances – and an increasing number of academic requirements – it is becoming harder for schools to provide.
In Illinois, 30 minutes of physical activity is required daily in school, but only two days a week do those 30-minute sessions have to be under the direction of a physical education teacher. Classroom teachers are required to work 30 minutes of physical activity into their routine the other three days.
Illinois school districts can ask the state for short-term waivers so they do not have to provide physical education daily, said Mary Fergus, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education.
“The most common reason districts are seeking that waiver is a lack of space. They may have a gym, but that gym also serves as a place where the kids have lunch – a multi-purpose room,’’ said Fergus, adding that mandated daily P.E. for kindergarten through 12th-grade students became a state law in 1957.
In 2008, the state changed the law to limit the amount of waivers a district can ask for, now allowing for an initial two-year waiver and then no more than two two-year renewals, Fergus said.
There is no arguing the benefits of providing physical activity to kids in school, Fergus said, citing overall health and increased learning as just a few. And national and state campaigns are cropping up to get kids moving and get schools and families involved.
“There are just a number of initiatives aimed at trying to increase activity and increase nutrition in schools and even out of schools,’’ Fergus said.
Let’s Move in School, an initiative sponsored in part by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, aims to increase physical activity for children before, during and after school, said Paula Kun, senior director of communications for the association, which is the only national education association for physical education teachers. The program is an offshoot of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Campaign.
“We’re trying to encourage schools to do this,’’ Kun said, adding that federal guidelines require 60 minutes of physical activity each day.
According to the Let’s Move web site, one in three children are overweight, with too much snacking and cutting back on time spent in gym class contributing factors.
Providing 60 minutes of daily activity under the Let’s Move in School program is done through a comprehensive program that includes physical education, physical activity during the school day, activity before and after school, staff involvement and family and community involvement.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s HealthierUS Schools Challenge also challenged schools to increase physical activity and nutrition by implementing programs that encourage a healthier lifestyle.
“Our P.E. teacher incorporates talking about exercises and the importance of exercise in all of her P.E. classes – and the importance of exercising at home,’’ said Rita Janus, principal of Meadowdale Elementary School in Carpentersville, which earned a gold award from the USDA for the school’s efforts. “It’s a mind-shift but, it’s gone very well.’’
The benefits to students are tremendous, she said, adding, “certainly if kids are healthy and eating well, it helps them to learn better.’’
A report by the University of Michigan on physical education in America’s public schools presents findings of a 2005 study that shows when students are involved in a physical activity there is an “improved rate of academic learning per unit of class time.”
The study also reports findings of a study done in France where a school increased its physical education time to eight hours per week, reducing the amount of academic time. The students in this experiment were physically and psychologically healthier, with increased academic performance compared to the control group.
Making sure kids stay active during the school day is vital, said Tom Ross, principal at Westwood Elementary School in Woodstock and former athletic director at Jacobs High School.
“We need to get them moving. We need to get them active,’’ Ross said. “It’s hard to sit and listen to a teacher and sit at a desk for 6½ hours.’’
But finding the time each day to provide that 30 minutes can be a struggle, he said.
“It’s just difficult to get 30 minutes in every day with the academic requirements from the state,’’ Ross said. “We’re asked to teach more and more every year.’’
Much of the students’ physical activity during the school week falls on the classroom teachers to provide, he said.
“It’s weather dependent, but teachers are going to give them 30 minutes maybe outside or inside the classroom [on the days when they don’t have P.E.],’’ Ross said.
Using stretching and movement throughout the day, between lessons, is a common tool teachers use to keep students moving, he said.
“They kind of build it into their routine daily,’’ he said.