Posted: May 26, 2014 in Election, Pedagogy & Education, politics

One of the points in the new Liberal platform is to encourage more physical activity among students to increase health. I’m all for increased physical activity, but when I was a teacher the DPA (Daily Physical Activity) that was instituted by the Board of Education was a bit of a joke. It involved trying to do physical activity somewhere inside, usually in the crowded classroom or in the hall. The program was changed from DVPA to DPA after the extremely unfortunate occurrence of a student having a heart attack while exercising. The student reportedly had a congenital heart problem, but the end result was to take the “V” out of DVPA. The “V” stood for “Vigorous”. So running stairs was curtailed in favour of doing the Macarena in classrooms, in spite of the fact that evidence shows that sudden cardiac death does not occur more often during exercise.

Other drawbacks that I found with the DPA program was that given its informal structure, the kids that needed it the most were inevitably the ones who put in the least effort. That was true in my class and it is true in classes I’ve observed since, even when the teacher has every serious intention of engaging everyone. Kids were exercising in their regular clothing in the middle of the day, getting hot and sweaty. Seeing as it was an informal activity, finding time to do the program almost always meant stealing time from another subject, such as Math, Science or Art. I’m not saying that exercise is any less important, but a teacher should not have to squeeze a 40 minute lesson into 20 minutes due to questionably effective exercise. In most cases the exercise time is not scheduled.

This was clearly introduced as a band aid approach to a very real problem. Such problems are usually only effectively solved by more sweeping and systemic changes.

So what can be done to increase student physical activity? Here are a few ideas:

1. Where possible, have students walk to school. I am amazed at the fact that most students outside of urban areas (and many within them) are bussed. When I was a kid (-insert ironic laugh here-), my Public School was three blocks away from my home and I walked it every day, four times. By the time I went to a Middle School (grades 7 & 8) it was two kilometres that I biked every day, even in the winter. Ironically, this is a suggestion put forth by the Drummond Report.

2. Emphasize two 20 minute outdoor recess periods every day, only cancelled for the most inclement weather. The students weren’t that keen on coming in, once outside.  Students being provided extra help, or serving a detention should always be guaranteed at least one of these two periods for physical activity. Investment can be made in outdoor games equipment and training to help encourage actual physical activity rather than texting.

3. Physical Education classes should be scheduled at least three times a week. One school I was in had a problem with too many classes to accommodate in the Gym, so they set up a room for physical activity, with appropriate resources. If there is a scheduling problem, one of the three classes could be in such a room.  during physical activity classes participation should be highly encouraged.  When I see classes in the gym, often there are a hand full of students on the sidelines or stage not participating.  Sometimes it is for medical reasons; sometimes it is because they are not prepared with proper gym clothing.  Ironically, those sitting out the activities are often those that need it the most.

4. One wise old teacher that I encountered early in my career said something to me that stuck. “If you want to add something, you have to subtract something else.” You can’t just impose a new program and not expect it to impact on the existing ones. If you add 20 minutes of exercise each day in the classroom, you’re going to lose 20 minutes of something else. As a teacher, with all of the other interruptions to my days (-that’s a story for another time-) it was hard enough to cram what I needed to do into the time given. It often meant abandoning a high interest, more novel approaches in order to just communicate the basics. Quality is sacrificed. There were many hurdles to my effectiveness as a creative teacher. It’s why I retired. Perhaps, if you want to add 20 minutes of program to each day, then the school day needs to be extended.

However should schools be primarily responsible for physical exercise and activity? When I was kid (-laughter again-) I was often outside in the neighborhood until dark. The old complaint that parents had about being home before the street lights came on is no longer a concern. Kids don’t go outside like they used to. This is what Richard Louv calls “Nature Deficit Disorder”. Videos and computer games can result in a child locking themselves in their room for hours after school, rather than being outside. Even when children are enrolled in team or organized sports, the few hours of activity each week are no replacement for regular daily activity. I admire the kids who go out and skateboard or who build ramps for their bikes.

It has to do with lifestyle and general attitude more than it has to do with what schools can provide. Until those issues are changed, no matter what the school does, the impact will be limited.


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