A Gym Class That Really Works Out

Remember the good old days of gym class, when you hated being the last kid picked for flag football or waited half a class period for your turn with the basketball?

Unfortunately, in the majority of physical education classes across the country, not much has changed. Not only are most PE classes sub par, students also get less exercise time than they need.

According to the 2006 Shape of the Nation, a joint project between the American Heart Association and the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, the percentage of students who take PE daily dropped from 42 percent in 1991 to 28 percent in 2003.

The study also found that about a third of states in America do not mandate physical education for elementary and middle school students.

This is unsettling news, particularly in light of skyrocketing childhood obesity rates. Approximately 25 million American children and teens are either overweight or on the verge of being overweight, which boosts their risk of diabetes, heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure and cancer.

A new program based in San Diego wants to change all that. Sports, Play and Active Recreation For Kids, better known as SPARK, is a research-based organization that applies innovative techniques to traditional PE programs to promote health and wellness and to maximize kids' gym time.

"Teachers often spend a little too much time managing students, putting out discipline problems, taking roll, talking a little bit too much," said Paul Rosengard, SPARK's executive director. "And we would like to see the kids moving a lot more."

Everyone Plays, No One's Last-Picked

Breaking the class into small groups, providing enough equipment for everyone and playing games where no one is picked last are some of the goals of SPARK, which has reached out to more than 1 million students nationwide, including the children at Everett Elementary School in Everett, Pa.

"In old PE I was the last picked," said 10-year-old Trevon Ward, a fifth grader at Everett Elementary. "It was boring because I would have to sit and watch them. And then when I did get picked, it was only a short time of playing and it wasn't that fun. [Now] it's really fun because we all get to play together."

Everett superintendent Rodney Green implemented SPARK after a 2003 survey revealed that students in his district had the highest percentage of body fat in the county. Twenty six percent of students were overweight while 18 percent were at risk. It didn't take long for Green to connect the dots between poor PE and students' health.

"PE before SPARK really was a more traditional approach on a very limited basis, but SPARK added a whole menu that we didn't have available to us before," Green said.

Now trained in the SPARK technique, Everett physical education teacher Karen Pittman visits each of the four elementary schools in the district weekly, impacting more than 900 students. Several classroom teachers also got trained in the SPARK technique, so PE could be integrated throughout the school day.

Everett's SPARK-influenced PE class lasts 30 minutes and consists of two parts: a health-fitness activity, like aerobic dance, and a skill-fitness activity, like basketball.

"I'm still doing the same sports that I did four years ago," Pittman said. "It's just a different way of approaching these games. It's more inclusive. There's complete activity during the whole 30 minutes; there's no standing around."

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