Prospect High School has created a new PE program wherein students are tested on their physical fitness twice a year. Those who get a “high” score get to pick which activities and sports they want to do in gym class. Those who get a “low score” are forced to into separate classes where they do mandatory cardio, like running laps, three times a week.
Some of the students have called the lower class “Fat Gym.’ The stigmatizing of fat kids in is horrible, and is just the tip of the iceberg of horrible on this one.
Unless their goal is to make sure that some kids develop a lasting hatred of exercise, I submit that this program is a terrible idea. I am not against movement programs in schools. I do think that they should be created with primary goals of fostering high self-esteem, body confidence, and creating something on the spectrum of not being driven completely away from the entire concept of movement, to developing a lifelong love of movement by the time they get out of school. Where on that spectrum any kid lands will depend on the kid.
Of course to do that we would have to accept some basic truths:
- Not every kid is going to excel in gym class and that’s ok.
- Not every kid is going to be interested in gym class and that’s ok.
- It’s very possible that the kids who don’t score well on the fitness test fall into one or both of the above categories, and forcing them do cardio while their friends play games isn’t likely to move them out of either category (which isn’t necessarily a worthy goal to begin with.)
- As history is written by the winners, so gym class is often taught. Many gym teachers are people who were/are naturally athletic and they can fall prey to the dangers of confusing their experience to everyone’s experience.
We also have to avoid making the mistake of believing that if most of the fat kids are in lower gym, that means that their fat is to blame. Remember that fat kids are given the message from a very early age that they are lazy and un-athletic. They may not be asked to play by their peers, they may not be chosen for teams by adults, when they are on teams they may be automatically placed in the least athletic role without being given a chance to develop athleticism. In this way prejudice can be made into reality. Looking at a kid’s body size tells you nothing about their athletic ability or how much they like or dislike athletics, and all kids should be given every opportunity to find movement they enjoy while scrupulously avoiding shame or stigma around the concept of movement.
I’ve seen the argument that if you struggle with reading you are put in remedial reading, and so if you struggle at gym class you should be put into remedial gym class. Here’s the issue with that: Reading and movement are not equivalent. Reading is a specific skill, movement/exercise is a concept. To get the benefit of reading 6th grade books, you typically have to read at a 6th grade level. To get the benefit of movement kids simply need to raise their heart rates for a suggested 60 minutes a day. How they do that or how “good” they are at it compared to others their age is completely immaterial. Winning at dodgeball, hell, being any good at all at dodgeball, is not a requirement for kids to gain health benefits from movement.
My suggestion is this: Create several options for kids that change every six weeks, with walking being a constant. So this 6 weeks it might be basketball, dancing, dodgeball, and walking the track. Next 6 weeks it might be lifting weights, yoga, soccer, and walking the track etc. I’d love to see two sets of sports – one competitive and one that is just about participating and having fun (maybe we could redirect some of that $60 Billion that we give to the diet industry every year to pay for it?)
Even if one argues that none of those changes are possible, we can do WAY better than punishing kids who don’t score well on a fitness test by making them run laps while their friends play games. Any school that has created a PE program which kids are calling “Fat Gym” needs to go back to the drawing board, very quickly.
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