December 2, 2021

The importance of gym

Mandatory class is more than running around

Photos by Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Groton kindergartners Alex Fish, right, and Ann Casey, left, weave in and out of cones Tuesday during physical education class Tuesday at Groton Elementary School.

Wearing a serious expression, kindergartner Vera Wagner punted a green ball across the gymnasium at Groton Elementary School. It crossed the blue line she had been instructed to stay on one side of, so she didn’t go after it, instead found another to punt.

Later, Vera played duck-duck-goose with her friends. Getting picked to be the goose was her favorite part of the class, she said.

“I didn’t even get tagged,” she said.

Groton physical education teacher Donna Davis-Howard gives highfives to Groton kindergartners as they run by during class Tuesday at Groton Elementary School.

Gym classes like these might just look like kids running around or learning how to play a new sport, but they are actually more than that when districts employ physical education standards. The classes teach kids like Vera fine motor skills and help them through the day to pay better attention, focus and learn, said Groton gym teacher Donna Davis-Howard.

Because of all the benefits, the state lays out specific time requirements for physical education for each age group, but a recent state comptroller audit found sometimes kids aren’t getting enough of it.

The audit, which focused on the 2016-17 school year, found nine out of 10 audited districts did not provide enough physical education to kindergarten through fourth graders, while seven didn’t do so for fifth graders.

“As childhood obesity continues to plague our children, it’s more important than ever to get students moving and help them develop healthy lifestyle habits,” Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli said in his report.

The closest districts to the Cortland area that were targeted in the audit were Baldwinsville Central School District in Onondaga County and Binghamton City School District in Broome County. But it’s a problem all school districts face.

State requirements

New York state’s educational requirements for physical education:
• All students in K-12 must a take part in a physical education program.
• Pupils in grades K-3 must have physical education daily, or 120 minutes a week.
• Pupils in grades 4-6 must attend physical education at least three times a week, at least 120 minutes, although fifth- and sixth-graders can follow secondary school standards of 90 minutes a week.
• Pupils in grades 7-12 must have physical education at least three times a week in one semester, and no less than twice a week in the other semester, averaging 90 minutes a week.

Source: New York State Education Department

Cortland Superintendant Michael Hoose said it’s more of a challenge at the elementary level because of the state’s demand for increased time spent on English and math. Hoose said at Cortland, the elementary schools do extra activities along with the physical education class, as part of the district’s plan to ensure it reaches the total number of minutes required.

Groton Superintendent Margo Martin said she can understand how some districts may end up sacrificing the physical education requirements — though she stressed Groton does not.

“You don’t get measured in the state’s eyes as far as academic performance is concerned by how physically fit your students are, you get measured by their reading and math skills,” she said. “So schools have to make a difficult choice and so much of the time they err on the side of academics.”

In Groton, however, Martin said the high school is on a sixday cycle, meaning high schoolers attend gym class every other day and elementary schoolers get recess every day and physical education either two or three times a week.

Younger kids start with fine and gross motor skills, at first the basics of how to skip and hop. Eventually, they graduate to organized games. The older kids learn activities they can engage in for a lifetime, like volleyball or pickleball.

“Part of educating the whole child includes wellness,” Martin said. “So I think it’s an important thing, and we have an obesity problem in the United States.”