What is classical PE?

It’s easy to explain what classical education is when it comes to history, or literature, or Latin. Parents and teachers in classical schools know that in a history class, students are reading primary sources, and in literature, they read the great works, not excerpts of them. Classical education treats students with respect, giving them primary sources and complete documents and trusting them (with the help of knowledgeable and engaging teachers) to discover why these works are important and what they teach us about ourselves and the world. But classical education isn’t just about the humanities: the best classical schools are just as strong in math, science, and the fine arts.

But what about classical physical education? Students need PE, especially if they attend a classical school. It’s a question that PE teachers from across our network of schools have had to ask themselves, and in visiting schools across the Barney Initiative network it’s clear that PE looks different in a classical context.

Thinking about classical PE begins with thinking about what it means to be a human being. Education is for both the body and the mind, and the classical thinkers understood that the two are inseparable. We are rational animals: creatures with bodies, like other animals, but with rational minds as well. Though the mind is higher than the body, and the cultivation of the human mind is ultimately the source of happiness, the mind cannot thrive unless the body is healthy. Think about the last time you were really sick, or had a serious injury. Wasn’t it much more difficult to be happy, even if your mind wasn’t directly affected?

Mr. Grzesiak (ask him and he’ll teach you to pronounce his name!) demonstrates a classical PE lesson with first graders at Ivywood Classical Academy in Plymouth, MI.

At the Barney Charter School Initiative lately, we’ve been studying the work of Athena Oden, a physical therapist who notes that children today are growing up in a very different way than they used to. She describes today’s youngsters as “container babies,” children who spend a lot of time in cribs or playpens when they are little, and therefore aren’t given the opportunity to move around and strengthen themselves. Think about how different childhood two generations ago was than it is today! Combine a lack of movement with ready access to screens and lives lived mostly indoors, and you get a noticeable decrease in gross and fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination among pre-school age children.

Nathan McClallen, athletic director and PE teacher at Founders Classical Academy of Leander, puts it another way:

Mr. McClallen, athletic director and PE and economics teacher at Founders Classical Academy of Leander, writes on PE and classical education at justphysicaleducation.com.

“We’re at a place in history where humans have just stopped doing what every other human in history has done. There are going to be consequences, we just haven’t isolated and identified them yet. If you stop being active, if you treat your body and health as an nonessential part of your life experience, it’s going to affect your mind. Human society is there. Welcome to the twenty-first century! Unlike previous centuries, staying physically fit is for professional athletes and minors with high metabolisms, manual labor is being replaced by machines, war is remote-controlled, it’s not safe for kids to play outside, and even youth sports are highly specialized. What did you say your blood pressure was again?”

According to Oden, in the classroom, a student who is behind in motor skills may show a shorter attention span, poor posture, restlessness, or problems with spacial awareness. The mind and the body are closely connected, and a student who doesn’t have enough core strength might slouch or appear lazy in class. The problem isn’t a lack of motivation, but rather a lack of the muscle control that’s necessary to sit up straight or write neatly for a long period of time. If you see a child slouching or fidgeting, consider helping him or her develop muscle strength through physical activity. If a container baby can learn to build up core strength and develop coordination in PE class, he or she could become a more successful reader or a stronger math student.

Sitting still in class, focusing, and holding a writing position requires good posture, which requires muscle strength.

Ms. Oden has created a program called Ready Bodies, Learning Minds to help assist with students’ physical development. Here at the Barney Initiative Mr. P. Grzesiak (one of two Grzesiak brothers) has been advising PE teachers on the program and teaching it himself.

As educators and parents, we have to remember that education is about the body along with the mind. Rightly done, a PE class will then contribute to the a foundation that the core classes rely on, and capitalize on it. In the early days of Founders Classical Academy of Leander, Mrs. White’s PE class was a place students went to become strong and fast and coordinated, but also to review their math facts and memorize their phonograms. I remember watching relay races where the team had to solve an equation or remember a date from Roman history before they could run the next leg of the race. The students learned in PE class that being fit is related to being educated, and that their teachers were all working together for their benefit.

In schools, PE should be treated as an essential part of the curriculum, and PE teachers should be well versed in the academic work their students are doing so they can complement it in the gym. Meanwhile classroom teachers can think about how their students’ physical development affects their ability to sit still, listen, write, and think in the classroom. Providing a well rounded education requires us to work with each other across the subjects and find ways to complement each others’ lessons. After all, students learn as much from watching their teachers talk and think with each other as they do from the lessons they deliver.

To put it another way and quote Mr. McClallen:

“The goal here is to start a movement. We need to move away from the ‘oh it’s just P.E.’ mentality and toward a deeper understanding of the purpose and value of physical education. What does P.E. look like in its ideal form? Rightly considered, P.E. is capable of helping us understand what it means to be human, learn eternal truths, and live good, happy lives, so why settle for anything less?”

Further Reading

Learn more about Athena Oden’s work here. Take a look at Hillsdale Academy Athletic Director Mike Roberts’s ideas about how to teach PE classically here. And if you’re interested in seeing how one teacher puts PE, economics, and classical education together in his own teaching, take a look at Nathan McClallen’s blog at www.justphysicaleducation.com.