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Why Middle School PE Sucks and How to Fix It

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Why Middle School PE Sucks and How to Fix It

In case you missed it, The Atlantic recently ran a piece on that unique form of middle school torture better known as PE (or phys ed class). Far from relying on anecdotal tales of psychotic gym teachers, playground bullies, and pre- and post-pubescent communal showers, the article points to actual research to confirm what many of us have long known: PE sucks.

Citing a working paper by Analisa Packham and Brittany Street from the University of Miami at Ohio, the article notes that while PE may be just fine for elementary-aged children, by middle school (or what was once known as junior high school), PE transmutes into a special kind of hell for many kids.

Analyzing massive amounts of data from a 5-year initiative intended to improve the fitness of low-income children in Texas, the researchers found that not only was there no positive impact on kids’ health, body mass index, or educational outcomes, it actually led to disciplinary problems and higher rates of absenteeism. In other words, PE was actually bad for kids.

Why PE Sucks in Middle School

In an interview, Packham explained that while PE is fine for kids at elementary school ages, by the kids start moving into puberty, PE can create a difficult atmosphere for kids who are slower to develop.

“Middle school students are at a prime time in their lives for bullying,” said Packham. “For those of us who weren’t really great at sports, the locker room can be a very stressful location. You have to change clothes in front of other students and you may not be super-comfortable with your body when you’re 13 or 14 years old.”

Atlantic readers asked to share their own memories of PE echoed those concerns. Wrote one woman: “The very, very worst memory, though, is that after class, we had to strip and take a big group shower. For girls going through puberty, it was the ultimate humiliation.”

Shared another reader: “What was gym class like to a nerdy, depressed adolescent? Torture. I loathed games, was an unpopular pick for teams, and dreaded gym class.”

So what is Packham’s advice to middle schools, particularly in an era when so many kids are battling obesity? To abolish PE as we know it and replace it with modes of physical activity that kids are comfortable with.

“I think it would be best for middle schools to allow kids to choose their electives or the kinds of physical activity they wish to engage in,” she said. Whether that activity is a child riding his or her bike to school, walking in the park after school, or participating in a form of exercise at school they enjoy, Packham believes that doing away with the roots of so many kids’ middle school suffering would go a long way toward improving kids’ health.

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Doug Rekenthaler Jr. is the founder and CEO of Kidzu. In addition to a long history as a journalist, technology consultant to nonprofits, and marketer, Doug spent years coaching multiple sports and learning just how important kids' clubs are to youth development.

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