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Reinventing PE

Non-traditional activities such as obstacle courses replace team sports as a method of challenging students to exercise.

As they dash across the open field behind Eastside Elementary School, it's clear that the first- and second-graders in Ken and Bunny Hunt's physical education class are having a blast. In the next 40 minutes, they will participate in a non-stop routine of stretches, exercises and games, all designed to be both fun and invigorating.

This is all part of the changing focus of physical education in public schools, said Mrs. Hunt, who has taught the subject for 32 years.

"Things have definitely changed for the better," she said. "Years ago, schools didn't worry if children were getting enough exercise, so long as they had a ball to play with on the playground. But we learned so much since then."

True. The days of rigorous calisthenics and competitive athletics have pretty much disappeared from today's gym class, replaced by more structured activities that stress individual fitness.

Where basketball hoops and baseball diamonds were the standard, many schools have added weight rooms and fitness trails to their physical education regimens.

Chin-ups and rope climbs

At Eastside, the fitness trail is one of the highlights of the gym class that the Hunts teach three times a week. The obstacle course, which includes activities such as rope climbs, chin-up bars and sit-up stations, offers students a variety of activities to help strengthen muscles, bones, hearts and lungs.

"We try to get in the most activity we can in 40 minutes," Mrs. Hunt said. She and her husband began teaching physical education at the school six years ago and established the fitness trail so they could provide a more enjoyable workout for the children.

"The kids love it," Mrs. Hunt said. "It offers them a challenge that they meet on their own terms." The Hunts encourage the children to work toward individual goals. If a pupil is only able to perform two chin-ups, that's fine, Mrs. Hunt said. "Perhaps the next time, they can do three."

The Hunts tailor their physical education class to meet specific guidelines set by the state. A daily routine of activities includes those that stress dexterity and hand-eye coordination. Others are intended to provide an aerobic workout. But all are intended to be fun.

"I really like the games we play," said 6-year-old Zach Sullivan after finishing a romping game of scooter-board relay.

Second-grader Bryanna Adkinson likes to run. "It helps your muscles to build up," she said.

But while it is easy to motivate elementary school-aged children, things get a little tougher as students get older.

Not just for athletes

At Hernando High, students are required to take only one full credit of physical education. The majority of them pass through Brett Teitelman's personal fitness class, a 92-minute daily session that involves strength training and classroom lectures.

Typically, the students spend the first part of the class in one of three weight rooms, where they are supervised as they work with an array of weights and strength-training machines. Other times they run on the track or perform aerobic exercises.

"Not all of them like being here, and sometimes that makes it a little hard to get them motivated," says Teitelman.

Teitelman encourages each student to set realistic goals. Because most are not athletes, he avoids the notion of competition.

"I would rather they get something out of it that helps them personally," Teitelman said. "Even a kid who is overweight can get some benefit from lifting weights. The trick is to convince someone who has always shunned sports that this could do them some good."

Hernando High freshman Jennifer Kratovil, a junior varsity cheerleader, never cared much for the idea of weightlifting. However, in the three weeks since she started the class, she has changed her mind.

"As a cheerleader, I have to lift a lot, so it's really helped me build some extra strength in my arms," she said.

Fourteen-year-old freshman Derek Pugh finds the personal fitness class much more interesting than the activities he did in his gym class at Parrott Middle School.

"It seemed like all we ever did was play basketball,' he said. "To me, that was boring."

X-treme PE

Keeping students interested, while motivating them into more physical activity, is one of the main reasons West Hernando Middle School athletic director Steve Whaley has begun to revamp his physical education program.

Studies show that middle school students tend to have the highest obesity rates of any age group. Fat-filled, sugary snacks coupled with television and video games are the culprits that Whaley and his colleagues battle most.

"By this age, a lot of them aren't into team sports anymore," Whaley said. "They've quit Little League and soccer. So it's a challenge to come up with something they're going to want to participate in."

Last winter, Whaley and his staff built and installed a rock-climbing wall in the gymnasium in hopes that students would develop an interest in the sport. It has since become one of the most popular activities in his 80-minute gym class.

With sturdy plastic footholds and hand holds of varying sizes, the climbing wall replicates a natural vertical structure. Using sophisticated safety harnesses, students attempt to ascend the wall using only their hands and feet. According to Whaley, it can be a rigorous workout.

"By the time they reach the top at 26 feet, they know they've done some work," he said.

Whaley, who has taught physical education for 29 years, the past 14 of which have been at West Hernando, said the climbing wall is a perfect example of why educators need to seek more ways to get students involved in more physical activity.

"To them it's X-Games. They see it on TV all the time, so it appeals to them," Whaley said.

Whaley sees other benefits to rock climbing as well. Students must work in teams with ground supporters providing counterweight to climbers. The activity also helps to build critical thinking skills.

He has also seen benefits for those less likely to accept physical challenges, including emotionally and physically handicapped students.

Whaley says the success of the climbing wall has compelled him to consider other non-traditional sporting activities. He recently completed a multi-level fitness trail behind the school and hopes to find financial support for a mountain-bike program later this year.

While traditional sports such as volleyball, wrestling and basketball still occupy important roles, Whaley thinks the introduction of non-traditional activities will enhance his program by appealing to students who never took a strong interest in sports.

"It has helped to build confidence in some of my kids who never thought of themselves as athletic before," Whaley said. "I feel kids should care about learning something about themselves."