Feature - Not Your Parents PE Class

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Feature - Not Your Parents' PE Class: Progressive Pedagogy at UW-Madison

Remember when gym class meant playing freeze tag and dodge ball? Children less adept at running and dodging got tagged right away and sat out until the game was over while their more skilled classmates had more time to become even better.

This scenario should be familiar to anyone who grew up in the United States before the 1990s. Many of those children, who innately loved to move and play, grew up viewing physical activity as a chore at best, or something to dread at worst.

“Up through the ‘60s and ‘70s, the philosophy was authoritative – a one-size-fits-all approach,” said Dan Timm, a Physical Education Teacher Education (PETE) faculty member.

That approach has been replaced. The physical education pedagogy that UW now teaches began in the 1960s with groundbreaking work by Muska Mosston, who introduced the Spectrum of Teaching Styles, Timm said.

The PETE program also incorporates research by Stephen Silverman at Columbia University, who found that the number of practice opportunities students have at an appropriate level is more important than the amount of time allocated for students.

Physical educators believe that all children have the potential, and the right, to be active and enjoy activities that keep them active.

“(At UW), we have a unique emphasis on the way that physical education contributes to the growth of the whole child,” said PETE faculty member Cindy Kuhrasch. “We work hard to develop skills in our students that help them to plan, instruct and assess youth in all three domains (physical, cognitive and emotional) of their development.”

PETE students also learn to engage in high-level thinking skills through exposure to a variety of ideas in classes. They learn to compare and contrast, analyze and select the best concepts for each teaching situation.

“The idea is to empower our students with not just knowledge, but also the skills necessary to make sound educational choices for their classrooms,” Kuhrasch said.

Some of those choices run counter to once-common activities from gym classes of the past. For instance, a list of inappropriate physical activities compiled by the Center for Advancement of Standards-based Physical Education Reform (www.csuchico.edu/casper) includes such ones as: “children perform standardized calisthenics with no specific purpose in mind (e.g., jumping jacks, windmills, toe touches).”

Students and instructors in the PETE program at UW-Madison make it their personal and professional goal to instill in schoolchildren a love for physical activity that will extend through their lives.

Children should be aware of the many ways they can maintain their fitness both in and out of the gymnasium – even ways they may not think of, such as yoga and dancing, said PETE senior Erin Siebert.

“I want to be the person able to show kids all of the different options because that's something I didn't have,” Siebert said. “I want to make sure that every student is comfortable in their own body.”

Children should also learn teamwork, interpersonal skills and how to move more efficiently. PETE students must be more thoughtful about how they address the psych-motor, cognitive and affective aspects of physical activity, Kuhrasch said.

“If we can help them learn how to move efficiently, then they will naturally want to move,” she said.

Kuhrasch teaches her students to help children reflect on what they are doing and offer strategies to increase children’s success and make sure everyone is happily involved.

For example, when a majority of players are frozen in a game of “high-five freeze tag” – where anyone who hasn’t been tagged can release anyone who is frozen with a high-five – the teacher can pause play, ask why so many frozen players haven’t been released, and help them cooperate to improve the game.

Also, teachers should never require running laps for misbehavior, like they did when she was a kid, Siebert said.

“I want kids to think ‘I want to run to go faster’ not because it's a punishment,” said Siebert, who admits that she still doesn’t enjoy running.

PETE junior Andrew Lukasko chose to focus on elementary schoolchildren because he wants to ensure that they don’t lose their natural eagerness and spirit for physical activity by the time they reach middle school.

“I want to change their perceptions early, before they have bad feelings (about it),” said Lukasko.

“We have to connect with each individual child, and make every one feel safe and enhance their environment so that everyone has an opportunity to excel,” said Lukasko, who grew up in a big family with many children. “I have a strong connection with kids and I feel I can make things interesting to them.”

He also wants parents to understand the importance of physical activity and advocate for keeping physical education and recess time in schools.

“I want to change face of physical education,” Lukasko said.

Children who grow up wanting to be active and who find ways that match their interests and abilities will have fewer health, and even social problems, associated with inactivity, Kuhrasch said.

“If people love to move, and if they get good instruction, they will continue to move and we won't have weigh-ins at the corporate level anymore,” she said. “But it's getting tougher with what's available to kids like video games and other stuff that distracts them from movement.”


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