UW–Madison students, faculty work to improve physical education, change perceptions

By Sofie Schachter

Dodgeball. Tag. Hula hooping. Capture the flag.

This is what many people remember when they think back to their physical education experiences in school.

Cindy Kuhrasch

But Cindy Kuhrasch, the program coordinator for UW–Madison’s BS in Physical Education (PE) program, is working to change that perception one student and class at a time.

Kuhrasch says coursework in the program focuses not only on the importance of providing quality physical and health education instruction to students — but also on the value of centering on the socio-emotional development of children. She wants people to know that gym class isn’t only about competition and playing, it’s primarily about teaching students the skills they need to live their lives. It’s about teaching cooperation, sharing, understanding your body, health, and happiness.

What students have to say

Students within the PE program — housed in the School of Education’s Department of Kinesiology — want this, too.

“I think a lot of people don’t understand exactly what goes into physical education or what could go into it,” says Taylor Olson, a fourth-year transfer student who is pursuing a BS in physical education.

“We’re kind of always battling that stigma,” adds Kaycia Zimmerman, another student who is pursuing a BS in physical education.

Under the leadership of Kuhrasch and other notable faculty members with the PE program, students like Olson and Zimmerman are not only learning more about the socio-emotional aspects of physical education, but also trying to spread that information to others and change how people view the subject.

Socio-emotional skills include the ability to process emotions, work with others, cope with conflict or failure, and more. All of this can influence a child’s mental and emotional maturation.

Taylor Olson plays with a student
Taylor Olson, a fourth-year transfer student who is pursuing a BS in physical education, connects with a student at St. James School. (Photo: Sarah Maughan)

“Children are learning social-emotional skills, whether you’re teaching them or not,” says Olson. “So it’s really important to focus on teaching good, responsible, healthy coping mechanisms and social skills. I also think that if we make PE an inclusive space for everybody adapting to everyone’s needs, it can be a really welcoming environment.”

Olson adds that having a positive PE experience can improve a child’s “mental health, physical health, and quality of life.”

Putting social-emotional skills to use in a local school

Kuhrasch and some of her student teachers had the opportunity to practice this philosophy at St. James School, a small, private school in Madison that is just west of campus. With the retirement of the school’s gym teacher in 2019, Kuhrasch and her students took over teaching the PE classes.

Randall Enders

“It was a really enjoyable experience for not only our kids but our staff too,” says Randall Enders, principal of St. James. “This was a chance for us to teach kids to interact the right way.”

Enders discussed the influence he saw the socio-emotional learning technique have on the kids at his school.

“This type of model, this type of philosophy, I think can go not only through PE but into other teachers that are learning. It’s an amazing thought process and so good for kids to learn,” he says. “And coming out of COVID and isolation, those are skills that a lot of kids never got to learn and develop. We take 15 to 20 minutes on Mondays to just play board games with the kids, because they don’t know how to interact with others.”

Enders adds: “Being a good teammate in PE class helps you in a science experiment, or encourages someone during a social studies group project. It’s a very positive experience for our students and teachers.”

Future leaders in the field

Olson is currently serving as the future professional representative on the Leadership Council for the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE America) Midwest District. She is a voting member of the Leadership Council that includes six states — Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and West Virginia.

“My role is to help engage the future professionals within the Midwest District,” Olson says.

Kaycia Zimmerman
Kaycia Zimmerman, another student who is pursuing a BS in physical education, plays with students at St. James School in Madison. (Photo: Sarah Maughan)

Also in a leadership role, Zimmerman is the vice president-elect for the Future Professionals Division of Wisconsin Health and Physical Education, and will be a voting member of the organization from October 2023 to October 2024. She works to get college students engaged and involved in more professional development opportunities.

“Many students have bad memories of PE class or dread coming to it or don’t want to be there, whether that’s because they think it’s about sports only or they have poor self esteem, and I really want to change that,” says Zimmerman. “I want to help students see that you don’t need to be the school’s best athlete to enjoy PE and that it’s not just about sports.”

She adds: “PE is where you’re learning to work with others. Starting that at a young age is really key to the rest of a person’s life.”

Both Olson and Zimmerman are majoring in PE with certificates in adapted PE and health education — all of which are housed in the Department of Kinesiology.

They also both are utilizing the UW–Madison School of Education Wisconsin Teacher Pledge program. The Teacher Pledge pays the equivalent of in-state tuition and fees, testing, and licensing costs for all teacher education students. In return, graduates “pledge” to teach for three or four years at a pre-kindergarten through 12th grade school in Wisconsin.

“We have great professors here and a great learning environment,” says Zimmerman.

“I’m really grateful for the program as a whole. It’s very rewarding to be a part of it,” adds Olson.