Physical Education: Why Do We Make Kids Move?
  • Physical Education: Why Do We Make Kids Move?
    This article on physical education is a summary of a three-part series published on It focuses on recognizing the goal of physical independence in fitness and healthcare decisions, determining why we, as professionals, have failed to get there, and proposing what we can do to improve physical literacy in diverse populations.
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    Physical Education is losing traction everywhere in the United States, and that’s probably a good thing. Why is that good? Because physical education fails to meet its goal: physical independence.

    Why do we make kids add? Why do we make kids read? So that they can develop these essential skills in a way that they will continue to use to benefit their lives. But, why do we make kids move?

    Physical Literacy
    Think of physical education in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Most of the people who were introduced to physical education in these decades do not currently know how to manage their health and fitness independently. Many are overly dependent on others for basic health and fitness fundamentals.

    What was the result of physical education early in their lives? Was it designed to promote physical independence and proactive behavior to manage both health and fitness across a life span? Or did it just introduce somebody to the different sized balls that can be used in various sports?

    What was your experience? Do you currently apply any fundamental principles from your grade school PE experience?

    Dr. Ed Thomas talks about the concept of physical literacy and about a physical culture that embraces its physical attributes as much as it’s academic, artistic, and intellectual attributes. Time and time again, he has displayed the positive influence that physical activity can have on a child’s grade point average—the benefits of exercise in academia, health, and self-esteem are clear.

    The book “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain” by John J. Ratey delves into the academic benefits of a more physical youth. It looks mostly at the physiological benefit of activity and exercise where oxygen is the hero, but there is so much more to consider.

    Across other subjects, when you get the fundamentals down, you can then begin to solve problems you have yet to experience. This problem solving is the hallmark of independence.

    As physical rehabilitation and personal fitness professionals, we need to think of ourselves as educators. How would we engineer a class to make a child feel independent with basic health and fitness decisions by the time they graduate from high school?

    The Ideal Situation
    I believe that a physical education class, if restructured and rebuilt from the ground up, would physically empower kids to overcome obstacles. Real, physical obstacles. Today we’re going to climb, tomorrow we’re going to skip, jump, and bound. The next day we’re going to run and then we’re going to throw things. We’re going to lift things, but the first thing we should probably learn to lift is you.

    We’re going to experience physical obstacles and create challenges. Those challenges will, in turn, create failures. Not the kind of failures you’re going to obsess about—we want the kind of failures that tell us the exact type of development that you need.

    However, it should be assured that the failure is safe and manageable. Not only is the failure manageable, but there is an educational path for the student to uncover—a well-planned feedback loop. The goal is safe, manageable, and meaningful failure.

    Tim Harford wrote a beautiful book called “Adapt” that focuses on how nature and the environment make us develop. Nature gives us many opportunities to fail. Not failing is how nature pats us on the back and is what we interpret as success. Great—until you remember that failure in nature can sometimes take your life or injure you severely.

    We often try to physically develop people better than the natural environment can. I want you to embrace the fact that we can’t do it better than nature. Often, when we’ve tried to develop one attribute better than nature, we’ve done it at the expense of another attribute or some other quality. There’s something about the way the natural environment develops us that will not let us go below a minimum accepted level of competency on another metric while pursuing the one of your focus.

    I think we can do it faster and safer than the natural environment if we are principle-based.

    That is exactly why we should try to develop a system based on nature and natural physical obstacles. We can start by following three simple principles from “Adapt.”

    Number one: Variety. As in nature, you have to be exposed to a lot of variation to develop. Not every one of your interactions with new activity is going to be a success. When you have a lot of variety, expect to have a lot of failure, which brings us to...

    Number two: Failure. Make the failure survivable. We run into this frequently with the Functional Movement Screen (FMS). When I tell someone that I don’t think they should load their squat because their squatting pattern is really dysfunctional, they inevitably say, “But tomorrow is squat day.” If your squat doesn’t have enough integrity to benefit from the load, then why do you persist in the load? I didn’t say “don’t work on your squat,” I said “don’t load your squat.” If we’re in control of somebody’s health or fitness we should first concern ourselves with their needs. Help them see that addressing the need could get them a little closer to the want. All we really injure is your pride.

    Remember, the SAID Principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands) is based on fundamental competency and basic function. If you don’t own those, you don’t adapt.

    Number three: Feedback. Make a clear feedback loop for non-failure and ensure that it follows a systematic development. I’m not necessarily sure an injury to my body will make me better, but most injuries to my pride enlighten me in some way. If the failure doesn’t have a feedback loop built into it, then it’s not nearly as instructional as it could be. If we (as coaches, trainers, teachers, educators, and rehabilitators) are going to step into the arena of development for health or fitness, then we need to remember that we can’t do it better than the environment.

    Cook4Finding Balance
    Today’s environments offer far too little activity and when activity is offered, the challenges are often asymmetrical. A physical presence is no longer necessary to be successful. However, a physical presence is necessary to be a balanced human being.

    Balanced human beings do not need to rob from one activity to strengthen another. That only happens when the strength is achieved in an unnatural and unbalanced way. Challenges in every area build the whole in ways far greater than their singular effects.

    We know that sometimes the fastest people might have the biggest flexibility problems. We also know that some people with no flexibility problems may not have the acquisition of strength they desire. We should scale the physical challenges away from games and more toward physical obstacles to allow those without an athletic affinity to have a physical presence in their lives. The most rewarding physical activity you can have is one that, by chance or design, is scaled to you—a challenge that involves full engagement. Why leave it to chance?

    The answers are not given, but they are just below the surface. With higher degrees of physical skill acquisition, greater challenges can be imposed, both to physical problem solving and physical strength.

    Somehow we got into fitness, sports performance, weight-loss, general physical preparedness, tactical training, and all other forms of physical conditioning that are focused more on physical appearance and performance than basic physical function. Had we focused on functional competency, we would not see a consistent, unchallenged functional problem across the landscape in both health and fitness.

    Physical Independence
    As a physical therapist, I often treat people who have already exhausted all of their insurance money. They come to me out-of-pocket and immediately expect me to do significantly more in one or two visits than the previous professional did after the twelve visits that exhausted all of their insurance resources.

    I’ve accepted that challenge and many times I’ve closed their case in three visits spread over three weeks by having them listen to the right advice and do the right thing. Am I an educator or a therapist? The effects of my treatment will quickly be absorbed into the rhythms and patterns of life, but pivotal education with clear physical examples is a game changer.

    I believe any opportunity to educate another human being should be a sacred moment. The tools we have created, like the FMS, the Selective Functional Movement Assessment (SFMA), and the Y Balance Test, improve communication and accountability for the education we promote and the interventions we provide.

    Our current medical and physical cultures are wasting a lot of time and not creating independence in our clients or our patients. Do we want them to be well and go tell others about their experience or do we want them to keep returning as continual consumers? At what point does wasting time conflict with an oath to do no harm?

    I’m not trying to do anything in my work with Functional Movement Systems to circumvent nature. Nature is where we came from and all growth is based on its principles. For my conscience, I would rather create independence, but that independence could easily start much earlier in our educational system. You need variety to grow. You’re going to have failure in order to gain perspective.

    Make the failure survivable for feedback and continued development and physical education will generate healthy individuals with physical problem-solving abilities and physical independence.

    This article is reprinted from with the permission of Gray Cook.

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  • Disclaimer: The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) encourages the exchange of diverse opinions. The ideas, comments, and materials presented herein do not necessarily reflect the NSCA’s official position on an issue. The NSCA assumes no responsibility for any statements made by authors, whether as fact, opinion, or otherwise. 
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