This post is a compensated editorial partnership with Voices for Healthy Kids, a joint initiative of the American Heart Association and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
For the last few weeks, Graham reported that he is the fastest person in his class. He used to be 2nd or 3rd place the first few months in his new school. Now, though, he is the fastest and almost always comes in first. A second grader now, he has dived into a whole new set of obsessions and passions. There is Pokemon card collecting, reading chapter books in bed with a flashlight, his ranking in an online math game, and his position as fastest in his class.
“You’re a fast runner,” I tell him. “I used to be pretty fast, too. And your dad is a runner. So maybe you’ll be a runner when you’re older.”
One of my favorite things about school is getting to see him learn about something and realize he’s good at it. I remember being in Elementary School and feeling like I could do anything.
In Elementary School I ran the anchor leg for the winning relay team. I did the most pull-ups of any kid in the class. I remember feeling strong and confident in my body and what it could do. Left to my own devices I always chose a book. I still do. I didn’t always love PE, but it always broke me out of my own world.
Graham runs a lot. When we get out of the car, he runs to the front door. When I pick him up from afterschool, he is often running around the playground. But he also has that same urge I do to sit and get lost in his head, sometimes for a little while, sometimes much longer.
I am still working on it. When we moved to warmer weather I started going on walks. I follow a trail around a lake for 2 miles. I feel the sunshine, watch the ducks, listen to an audiobook, and remember that my body is here and how it feels when I use it. I have gone years without regular physical activity in my life, happily ignored it and avoided it. But I am old enough now to recognize the difference between how I feel after a day of work at a computer and free time with a book and nothing else vs a day with all those things where I also go outside and use my body. My brain is different, my body is different, the two feel more connected.
I want Graham to develop healthier habits than I did. I want him to find physical things that he is good at, ways to use his body that help him feel like a sharper person. And I know that the best thing for him right now is PE at school. He needs the structure and the coaching and the instructions. He needs someone to tell him what the goal is and how to do it well and what makes you the best. At home, the mornings are short and the evenings are short and we barely get enough time together. In the winter it’s usually dark before we even get to our apartment. PE is what I rely on.
But Graham doesn’t get PE every day. And that’s not uncommon at all. Only 4% of Elementary Schools provide daily PE year-round for their students. I care a lot about my kids’ education, of course. But I also want them to get more than just academic skills at school. To me, school is where you go to prepare yourself to live in the adult world, and that includes not just subjects like math and reading, but classrooms full of students to help learn social skills, teachers in the arts to foster creativity and PE to develop good physical habits.
When Graham started school I assumed that all those things just happened. Over the years I talked to teachers, I took positions in the PTA, and I learned a lot about his classroom and his school. I learned so many good things, but I also saw that there is still a lot more we can do for our kids. And that’s true in his new school just like his old one.
Now that we’re here and we’ve gotten settled, it’s time for me to get back in the saddle. I have to get in the weeds and start going to PTA meetings and figure out what I can do to create a better school for my kid and all the other kids he walks in the doors with every day. And PE is part of that.
I’m partnering up with the American Heart Association today to talk about an initiative to get PE in every school for every child. In partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, AHA has started the Voices for Healthy Kids initiative to reach out to parents like me to be more involved in our school and to advocate for physical education. Not only to help improve kids’ physical health and fitness, but to help them learn. Research has shown that increasing PE in schools improved children’s physical fitness and reduces obesity. They also do better on standardized tests! In fact, taking some time away from academics to use on PE didn’t have any drop in test scores at all. Kids do just as well in school with more PE and they’re building a better set of healthy exercise habits. (Want more data? There’s a whole bunch right here.)
So what can you do? Well, you can head over to the Voices for Healthy Kids initiative to get their PE toolkit and join the action team. You can also talk to your school, your school district, and your state representatives about the ESSA (the Every Student Succeeds Act). ESSA requires all states to develop a comprehensive plan to give all students a high-quality education. Voices for Healthy Kids wants PE to be included as a part of that comprehensive plan. ESSA includes PE as part of a “well-rounded curriculum,” but it’s not mandated that it be included. You have to make sure your state puts it in their plan to get the funds in place to help schools create better PE programs for our kids.
When I was in high school, you only had to take a few semesters of PE. You definitely didn’t have it every day, you could go a whole year without it if you wanted. But some of my best memories are from one of my PE classes. It was called Rocky Mountain High and it was the best PE class I ever took. We did problem solving, ropes courses, rock climbing, orienteering, and trust exercises. I was always happy to go, even though I was always exhausted when it was over. By then I’d lost all that physical confidence I’d built up as a kid. For years, no one had been there to show me how to keep that confidence, how to make it part of my life. I wonder sometimes how things might have been different if I’d had that.
For now, I keep going on my walks around the lake. On the weekends the kids come with me, bringing their bikes along. We stop to look at the ducks. We talk about the trees. And I hope that I’m doing at least a little bit to help them keep this confidence and joy in being out and using their bodies. I hope they get connected to feeling spent and happy and satisfied that happens every time we come home and sit down together and put our feet up. I hope I can give them something better.