Shaping Up PE: The rise in childhood obesity prompts a gym class makeover

Schools respond to rising childhood obesity rates with a new focus on kids' fitness and physical education.
By Daniele Seiss
Sunday, August 8, 2010

Teacher Donald Hawkins shouts enthusiastically to his 3- and 4-year-old students: "Can you name any animals that hop?"

The answers trickle in from the sleepy but smiling youngsters: a kangaroo, a frog, a rabbit. They decide to mimic the frog. It's 9:30ish in the morning inside Browne Education Campus's comfortably warm gymnasium in Northeast Washington. Fast-tempoed music gets the kids in the mood to hop, and off they go, rhythmically squatting and bouncing across the room. When the music stops, the children rise, a little more awake.

"Are you ready?" Hawkins yells. "I can't hear you!"

"Ready!" they reply.

This is Hawkins's health and physical education class, but it's not the PE that these preschoolers' parents probably remember. The days of students fretting over being the last one picked during volleyball or the first one tagged in dodge ball are fading in many D.C. area schools as physical education classes, such as this one, focus more on individual fitness, personal growth and development.

"The trend is to move away from competitiveness," Hawkins says.

When his preschoolers' class is over, Hawkins shifts his attention to his next class, eighth-graders. Beginning with a tutorial on aerobics, Hawkins asks what muscles each activity works, and he and the kids go through a list. When the students overlook the central one, he drops a hint: "It's been beating since before you were born."

The students bound into step aerobics and then begin a game of "softball," a batless version with no teams and a small, yellow rubber ball. Since September 2009, Hawkins's curriculum has included a program that the D.C. public school system recently adopted called SPARK -- Sports, Play, and Active Recreation for Kids -- designed to combat child obesity by promoting healthy lifestyle changes and habits.

(Senate passes $4.5 billion legislation for healthy school lunches)

Through SPARK, all of the District's schools will receive a new physical education curriculum with age-appropriate fitness lessons and activities, on-site teacher training and equipment: jump ropes, Frisbees, hula hoops and balls, as well as parachutes, rhythm sticks and juggling scarves. The program also comes with follow-up support and assessment tools.

School officials said their goal is to help reduce the increasing number of children who are overweight, which is in line with the Healthy Schools Act, passed this year by the D.C. City Council and signed into law by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. The act requires schools to provide students a prescribed number of hours of physical education and to serve meals that are higher in nutrition and include more locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables.

(Michelle Obama op-ed: A food bill we need)

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