By McKensy Phillips, Middle School Physical Education Department Head
Fresh air, a sense of movement, and finding fun and engaging ways to heighten students’ learning have always been natural components of the Country Day curriculum. We take those ideals even further in our daily physical education (PE) program. Much like the PE class you may remember, we continue to focus on fundamentals like how to throw and kick a ball, building cardiovascular health and muscular strength, and practicing teamwork and sportsmanship. However, how this information is presented to students at Country Day continues to evolve. As PE teachers, we strive to be at the forefront of student health and well-being by continually innovating our program.
Facing Today's Challenges
To address rising concerns nationally and within our own community surrounding mental health and wellness, we have found a natural space within the Middle School PE curriculum to help students find ways to cope with, process, and react in healthy ways to the stressors they may feel during their adolescent years. For instance, on the second day of school, all Middle School girls learned proper posture while they deliberately and intentionally performed bodyweight exercises. We want to help them correct the “hunched neck-and-shoulder” posture that’s highly associated with increasing amounts of screen time.
During seventh-grade health, students participate in a two-day mindfulness “retreat” to learn how to identify and cope with some of their stressors. In eighth grade, students learn progressive muscle relaxation and a variety of deep-breathing strategies to help them find the most effective tools for managing stressful situations. We realize that a student’s whole self, including pent-up stress, poor posture, and muscular imbalances or weaknesses are part of the physical self. Thus, our PE program has assumed a whole-body wellness approach with the intention of helping students find strategies and techniques to help their bodies perform as successfully as possible.
Making Moving Fun
If you were to ask PE teachers around the country what their main goal is, you’d probably hear “to get my students moving.” At Country Day, PE for fifth and sixth graders often resembles a beginner sports practice—students learn the skills, strategies, and techniques needed to be successful in specific sports. However, we also recognize a need for spontaneous and imaginative movement. That’s why many of the units for seventh and eighth graders trend toward creative play. In “Outdoor Games,” kids play Spud and Gatorball, and Ultimate Frisbee offers an alternative to many of the more traditional team sports. Seventh graders have the chance to learn step aerobics, eighth graders can take Cardio Drumming, and students can even get a history lesson during a “Combat Games” unit in which historical battles are reenacted as invasion games using PE equipment. Dance units allow students to incorporate popular moves into a routine, “Circus” engages students through juggling and balancing skills, and Futsal brings the newest soccer trend into the PE class. Students take yoga and weightlifting classes, and they can even work with a teacher to create their own fitness plan, focusing on individual goals during the unit. The primary goal of our program is for every student to want to keep moving when the PE class is over. Collaborative efforts within the department began this school year to compile a “Best Alternative Games” list, thereby ensuring that innovation, creativity, and fun are always at the forefront of each class lesson. But, as said best by one PE teacher, “My favorite games are the ones the kids and I create together.” Innovation at its finest.
Lifelong Health at the Forefront
Bolstering student physical and mental health through a daily, engaging PE curriculum sets Country Day apart from many other middle school programs. In a society where it seems kids join highly competitive teams at increasingly younger ages, our PE program offers a reprieve from the structure and the grind to remind students how fun, invigorating, and refreshing play can be.
Ultimately, we are not just teaching PE; we are inspiring a love of physical activity that promotes the mind-body connection for lifelong health.