BALTIMORE -- You won't see 7-year-olds picking their own sports teams anymore -- the last one chosen feels lousy and, besides, the drama of picking just the right kid next can be long and exhausting.
You shouldn't find dodge ball. ("Children are not targets, and we don't throw balls at each other," one Baltimore County official said.) In Howard County, they've banned any sport with a goalie. Being forced to climb to the top of the rope with your classmates watching is out. Most gym teachers don't even carry whistles anymore.
What was once the platform for those who could run the fastest and jump the highest -- and the half-hour of the school day dreaded by the scrawnier and less coordinated -- has been given a makeover in the past decade. The "New P.E.," as this updated version of physical education is sometimes dubbed, has been called kinder and gentler by some, common sense by others.
Faced with higher rates of juvenile obesity and diabetes, with kids who feel more comfortable sitting behind a computer than playing street hockey after school, the philosophy of physical education has taken a 180-degree turn. This isn't the farm team for the varsity anymore -- it's about turning kids on (instead of off) when it comes to exercise.
"It's not just about preparing to play a sport," said Sally Nazelrod, Baltimore County supervisor of physical education. "It's about learning to move efficiently and effectively in order to have a healthy lifestyle."
Said Thomas J. Cordts, physical education teacher at Windsor Farm Elementary School in Annapolis: "People were noticing kids were becoming too competitive. It was destructive. All they were thinking about was playing and winning."
The shift comes as those within the discipline of physical education are fighting for its survival. Once a near-daily ritual, at least through middle school, physical education time has been encroached upon by subject areas -- particularly those tested as part of the high-stakes Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) -- devoted to stretching the mind.
In Maryland's elementary schools, one to three periods a week -- 30 to 90 minutes -- are set aside for gym class. Even then, it's not all movement time. "There has been a tremendous push toward bringing in all the other learning areas," Cordts said.
Some of it is logical -- discussions of bones and muscles and tendons and how they work together when you move. Cordts has talked about the Olympics and even had his pupils write letters to athletes. When the first-graders warm up, they reach for their toes for a count to 20 -- by twos, then up to 100 by fives.
"The kids would be upset with me if I told them we're going in the computer lab today to do a writing project on baseball, because they honestly look forward to coming in and moving," he said.
And boy, do they move. On a recent morning, the first-graders were up first. Striking skills were the order of the day -- with the period's goals written on the room's dry erase board just as in any other class. With open palms, they practice hitting tennis balls into the air, as if their hands are mini-rackets. The balls bounce around the room wildly -- almost no one can hit the ball twice. There's a lot of giggling. They move on to smacking the balls against the wall -- again, like tennis. Again, little success.
But Cordts never mentions tennis or its rules or strategies. That's not what this is about.
"They don't need to be good at it," he said. "They certainly don't need to look at Michael Jordan and expect to play basketball like him."
He just wants his pupils to have the confidence to pick up sports later in life, to enjoy physical activity like aerobics or weight lifting or walking when they grow up.
"I've learned that if you believe in yourself, you can do a lot of things," Zoe Sloan, a Windsor Farm fourth-grader, said with a shrug. Her favorite is when they use the hula hoops and jump-ropes, but Cordts catches her taking a shortcut when it comes time to run a lap around the gym.
Critics charge that the new way is wimpy, that it doesn't toughen kids up to some basic realities -- that sometimes you lose, that some kids are just better athletes than others. Judith Young, executive director of the National Association for Sport and Physical Fitness, based in Reston, Va., said those things come soon enough.
"We don't have to work at teaching them that," she said. "We don't have to have them have daily dodge ball for them to find out they're as good at dodge ball as some others."
Not everyone has taken the transition to heart. Some of the high school students encountered by Elaine Lindsay, an instructor of future physical education teachers at the University of Maryland, College Park and a speaker on the topic, ask when they're going to play the "real" game. And some of the teachers who have been around for a long time are teaching the way they always have.
"There are still some of these people -- I call them dinosaurs -- who are out there taking roll and rolling out balls," she said. "In some ways they hurt our progress."
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But even the President's Physical Fitness Test, which since the 1960s has been a gym class staple with its mile run, its sit-ups and pull-ups, has changed. No longer does the test only recognize students who score at the top. Now there are patches awarded for all ability levels, even those who were frustrated before, as long as they make progress.
Many schools in the region and all of Baltimore County -- as in New York state and Illinois -- have adopted a new kind of fitness test called the Fitnessgram, with software and other materials, that focuses on what is healthful for kids to achieve, not pushing them beyond what they can handle.
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Nazelrod loves to emphasize what is done in physical education, not what is no longer allowed. In some classes, students use heart monitors to learn what happens to the heart as they exercise. Teachers are looking for maximum participation -- those 11-on-11 soccer games where two kids attack the ball while the other 20 stand around mean a lot of kids aren't getting exercise, typically those who need it the most. Now they play smaller games, perhaps three-on-three, which compels everyone to play.
And there is an emphasis placed on new adventures -- on the trust that can be built on a low ropes course, on the problem-solving that comes with getting a team of classmates over a wall.
"A lot of kids are in trouble because they're constantly looking for that adrenaline rush -- adventure gives you that supervised risk," she said. "Maybe kids aren't going to do something stupid. We're providing them activities to get that high -- a safe, natural high."
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service
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