Learning about math, language arts, science and other subjects for six hours or more a day can be tiring for students, which is why activity breaks during the school day are important to refresh both the mind and body. But one of the most important outlets for kids--physical education, or P.E.--doesn't get the time it deserves at many schools.
While minimum standards for P.E. vary by state in the absence of federal requirements, experts generally recommend 150 minutes of P.E. a week at elementary schools and 225 minutes at middle and high schools. However, in America, only Oregon and the District of Columbia meet that recommendation, according to the recent 2016 Shape of the Nation report.
"There are several reasons why P.E. can take a backseat when it comes to school," says Lisa Hoang, MD, a board-certified pediatrician at St. Joseph Heritage Medical Group. "There's only so much time in a school day, and P.E. may be an easy cut from the schedule compared to core subjects. There's also the matter of funding--some schools may only be able to pay for part-time teachers, or if they do have P.E. teachers on staff, there's not a lot of money to fund their P.E. program. And some schools let students opt out of P.E. in favor of another class, such as marching band.
But P.E. is important, says Dr. Hoang. "If you look at those recommended standards for P.E. instruction in elementary schools, it breaks down to 30 minutes a day--in other words, that's half of the 60 minutes of physical activity kids should have each day. Losing P.E. time means a significant loss of opportunity for exercise that kids need to make up elsewhere in their day. "
How can you ensure your child is getting the necessary physical education time? Dr. Hoang suggests talking with your child's teacher or a school administrator to see what the campus P.E. program entails. "At least of half of every P.E. class should have students moving and active--no sitting on the bleachers for long stretches or team sports where kids don't get much opportunity to play," Dr. Hoang says. "Find out if the school has a teacher in charge of the P.E. curriculum and see what is planned for your child's grade level." If you think there aren't enough minutes of P.E., ask how you can help as a volunteer. "Parents can support the work of a P.E. teacher by helping run organized games or physical fitness sessions with calisthenics," Dr. Hoang says.
Parents can also help supplement P.E. programs by organizing before- and after-school fitness clubs. "Some schools offer extracurricular programs in running, yoga, Zumba or dance," Dr. Hoang says.
Also, encourage your child to run around and play during recess. "While it may be tempting for your child to just hang out and talk with their friends, suggest that they start a game of kickball or four square, or even just use the playground equipment," Dr. Hoang says. "Lunch recess is another good time to volunteer and oversee organized activity, such as soccer or jump roping." High schoolers who have fulfilled their P.E. requirement should play on a school's sports team or in an after-school rec league. "Organized sports offers the chance for skill-based learning along with physical activity."
Finally, make sure your child is active at home. "Homework, extracurricular activities, family dinners--they all are important," Dr. Hoang says. "But it's easy to fit in 30 minutes at a park or even a family walk around the block after dinner. Limiting the screen time to do more exercise encourages a healthy and active lifestyle. Doing the activity as a family serves as a great bonding time as well."
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.