The fitness kick;Phys ed

22nd October 1999 at 01:00
Ted Wragg explores how children can chart their progress

Poor old primary physical education. It gets kicked from pillar to post, squeezed to make room for more literacy and numeracy, and is frequently the subject of moans from teachers who dislike PE, or from those who find activities such as swimming costly and irksome.

I once went to visit a deputy head I know, a brilliant teacher of everything except PE. She stood in the playground in coat and muffler watching what looked like the Battle of Agincourt. It was football, six-year-old style. From time to time she blew the whistle, arbitrarily I thought, and gave a foul. She didn't know the rules, so she whistled up fouls "for safety reasons" (whenever a fatality seemed imminent).

As a nation we are unfit. Few adults take enough exercise and participation in sport declines in grown-up life. Germans often remain active and veterans' events are commonplace. We Brits hang up our plimsolls at 18 and opt for sloth, apart from an annual swim during our summer holidays.

Even worse, many children are unfit. Parents are reluctant to let them go to parks and playgrounds, fearing for their safety, so they are confined to the house or garden in the evening. "Digital gymnastics" - fiddling with the TV remote control or computer mouse - is frequently the sole form of leisure activity.

A survey for Sport England and Leeds Metropolitan University showed that more than half a million hours of PE teaching have been lost in primary schools to make room for the literacy hour and extra numeracy work. Yet PE can flow naturally across many areas of the curriculum and the notion of "healthy living" can be of great interest to primary-age children. You can make it relevant to:

* Literacy keeping a log * Numeracymeasuring performance * Personal and social education"persistence" and "co-operation" * Science how our bodies work All these subject areas can benefit from PE being well taught.

A healthy lifestyle starts with a sound cardiovascular system. Adults need roughly three periods of 20 minutes per week, when the pulse rate goes above 140 beats a minute, to maintain a healthy heart.

Running, active sports and vigorous disco dancing, will all produce this level of activity, unlike spectating, lager swilling, or snoring in a chair. Here are just a few possibilities for a healthier PE curriculum: Baseline information

Early in the year ask children to collect some baseline information on themselves without making them neurotic about the results. It is enjoyable and informative, not for worrying about. For example: measure a standing long jump; write down how far you can swim; time how long it takes to run 50 metres, rest for a minute, then run another 50 metres and time it; keep a weekend log of how many hours you spent on what sort of activity.

Children should take each other's pulse rate in pairs when resting (count for 15 seconds, which is usually about 20 or so heartbeats, and multiply by four to calculate the one-minute rate), then run two 50-metre runs as fast as possible and take pulse rates immediately. Five minutes later (resting time) record pulse rates a third time. This shows how quickly they recover, as heart rates will go quite high during vigorous exercise, but should come down again after a rest.

Healthy living

Every child can keep a "healthy living" notebook, which begins with their own baseline information and is then updated during the year. Can they now jump further, run faster or further, swim for longer? Is their second 50 metres getting quicker, even if their first one isn't? They are growing bigger, so performance should improve gradually anyway. Is "recovery" getting better (are they less "out of puff" after five minutes rest)?

Is their weekend lifestyle more active? Are they taking more exercise, watching less television, spending more time outdoors? Make allowance for the seasons, of course, as winter is a time when bad weather and dark nights cut down opportunities.

Keep a log of eating and diet. Are they starting to eat healthier food - more fruit and vegetables, fewer sweet and fatty things?


Draw up histograms and pie charts of long jump or sprint improvement (how many children are better, worse, the same), weekend television watching, exercise taken, or kinds of food consumed.

Measure the effects of different types of practice on accuracy and co-ordination: draw a big bull's-eye on a wall and throw tennis balls at it. Try 20 throws. Are the last five better than the first five? Does a break help? (some children try 20 throws at once, others do two sets of 10 or four sets of five throws, then compare results).


Write commentaries in the logbook about whether or not you feel fitter. Persuade a different class to do some measurements and write about the results: are boys' and girls' - or younger and older children's - lifestyles, performances, diet, different in any way?

What about grown-ups: are men and women different in their activities? Do men like football, but women prefer tennis and badminton? Do girls give up sport in their teens? If so, why? Would doing aerobics and being allowed to wear leotards appeal more to girls?

Personal and social

Let children organise their own five-a-side football competition, record scores, work out league tables and help to coach each other. Groups of three can improve their gymnastics (two pupils make a "shape", the third helps them make a better one). There is no end to the ingenuity that can make PE more worthwhile and enjoyable for children and teachers.

Ted Wragg is professor of education at Exeter University

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