School physical education must focus on access to activity for all


Trista Sobeck

Hans van der Mars, MLFTC professor and program coordinator of Physical Education, knows it will take a lot of time for the U.S. education system to really embrace physical education again, but it’s making progress.

Unfortunately, it took a significant rise in obesity among children and youth for PE to get increased attention. Van der Mars says policymakers continue to define education almost entirely by “what goes on just above the neck.” The body is seen as an appendix, he comments.

In fact, numerous research studies show that physical activity (including effective physical education) affects what occurs in the brain. And that growing awareness is partially due to van der Mars’ work.

Hans van der Mars

Hans van der Mars. Photo courtesy of Hans Dijkhoff (KVLO)

 On March 23, van der Mars will be inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Society of Health and Physical Educators — known as SHAPE America — in recognition of his relentless efforts to help children get a quality physical education and maximum access to physical activity opportunities beyond PE.

His cause is particularly important today, when, on average, high school students who are not part of an interscholastic athletics program are required to take PE for only two out of eight semesters.

“Needless to say, SHAPE (along with the Institutes of Medicine) has been hammering away at this problem for years, with recommendations for daily physical education for a certain number of minutes per week,” van der Mars says. SHAPE recommends 150 minutes of PE per week in elementary school; about 30 minutes every day. In middle schools, that recommendation increases to 225 minutes per week.

“If you look back to the 1950s and ’60s, it was common for secondary schools to also have intramural programs. And then, of course, there were after-school athletics programs,” van der Mars says, adding that it was easy to fold physical activity into a typical school day.

Getting the balance right

Van der Mars says political pressures that arose through educational reform efforts have taken our schoolchildren down an unhealthy road over the last four decades. He points to “A Nation at Risk,” published by President Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education in 1983; and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

“Nowhere in any of those initiatives did physical education get mentioned along with other subjects, because they were all about getting students to perform better academically in a limited number of subjects — English language arts and mathematics,“ van der Mars says. “That is a terribly narrow view of what education is supposed to accomplish.”

After completing undergraduate studies in his native Holland, van der Mars earned his PhD in physical education from The Ohio State University. He was part of the ASU faculty from 1986–92, then spent 15 years as a professor at Oregon State University. He returned to Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College in 2007.

Van der Mars says, “My passion has always been helping new professionals teach physical education in schools, and conducting research on physical education teachers and students.” He says it’s important to him to do quality work in both teaching and research. His induction into the Hall of Fame of his profession’s national association, which has nearly 50,000 members, testifies to his success at both.

As MLFTC reimagines what it means to be an educator, van der Mars emphasizes that K–12 education must focus on the whole child: the connection between the mind and body, overall well-being and the promotion of physical activity.

Redesigning schools includes expanded access to physical activity for all

When you use the word “gym” to describe PE to van der Mars, he corrects you. “‘Gym’ is a building. It’s a place. What happens in the building is what is important. Effective physical education is programming that is delivered by qualified, certified teachers in that subject. It is a program delivered as a planned curriculum, based on national content standards where teachers can show that students actually benefit from experiencing physical education by gaining competencies and foundational knowledge, and a passion for leading physically active lives.”

Beyond a PE curriculum, van der Mars says, providing access to all physical activity areas and equipment for all students, as well as adequate supervision, would create an environment in which they can reach the SHAPE-recommended levels of health-enhancing activity.

Van der Mars says it’s unfortunate that intramural activities in secondary schools have all but disappeared, primarily because few teachers want to take them on. “Teachers’ negotiated contracts stipulate how teachers are to spend their time at school; for example, how much time is given for planning and lunch.” He says most teachers may not be willing to also monitor students’ recreational activities during their lunch periods. “Lunch becomes the teachers’ personal time,” van der Mars points out. Add this to their ever-increasing list of other responsibilities, and few teachers have time to plan and implement them all.

“Many newer secondary schools have extensive physical activity venues which represent huge investments by taxpayers,” van der Mars says. “But how much are these really used? Generally speaking, if you provide students access to those facilities, give them equipment and provide the required supervision, they will come and be active. We have the data.”

As MLFTC works with districts in redesigning schools, van der Mars says they should replicate programs like those his doctoral students created for elementary and secondary schools. “We have done research in which we showed how a before-school walking-running club resulted in higher levels of total physical activity, as well as higher levels of on-task classroom behavior.” Similarly, doctoral students replicated an earlier high-school based study and implemented a lunchtime physical activity drop-in program at the junior high level. As a result, more students were active beyond PE while at school.

Van der Mars explains that the education system labels students from a young age as athletes or nonathletes. “‘Nonathlete is a terrible label,” he says. And for students who try out for a sport and don’t make it, where can they go to participate in that same sport, either competitively or more recreationally?

Policy and professionals

Promoting physical activity is getting more attention, he says, because parents are starting to see the negative effects and challenges in the increase in overweight kids. “Parents are calling for more physical education. And that is a good thing,” he says. “People are finally starting to recognize that physical activity is very important for current and future health and that kids who are inactive need to be active.

He proposes, “What if high schools were no more than 1,000 children? What if there was a variety of physical activity venues throughout the community that could be used for different schools? Does every school really need its own lighted baseball, softball or football field or track? Could there not be a much closer link between a municipality and the school district where schools would share these facilities?”

Van der Mars recommends strong state-level policies that support PE for all students. He points to cigarette smoking in America as an example. “Take a look at the degree to which smoking steadily increased from the early 20th century through 1964 until the surgeon general's report on smoking came out, “ he says. It took five decades for the rate of smoking to decline steadily, due to a combination of relentless and ongoing anti-smoking campaigns, litigation and, above all, policy.

He notes an effort underway to implement a requirement that elementary schools offer a minimum of two recess periods per day, saying that simply needing to legislate such a requirement says something about our priorities for education. Another example is that school districts can decide that students in JROTC or marching band can count that toward completing their high school PE requirement.

But van der Mars says there are encouraging signs in the promotion of PE and school-based physical activity. “There are many schools with very dedicated professional teachers who are truly committed and do superb work in the face of a system that breeds mediocrity and allows for it to exist.”

In short, van der Mars says, advocates of PE cannot rest.

For an example of one of these outstanding individuals, read more about the Arizona Teacher of the Year, Josh Meibos.