The New York Times reports that "Gym Class Isn't Just Fun and Games Anymore." Gym class has been encroached upon by test prep for some years now, with hours and positions cut to accommodate increased time for math and literacy instruction, but this is different. Gym teachers are, by choice or under pressure, or, most plausibly, by pressured choice, now including math and literacy instruction in gym classes. Children, for instance, might be required to review vocabulary words while engaging in a gym activity, or practice math skills.
Why is this a problem? Why not multitask in gym class? After all, I watch the news sometimes while running at the gym, and I think through research while swimming -- and where's the difference? Because the true purpose of gym class is affective. It's all about learning to deal with other people throwing balls at your head -- in fun! -- and to tolerate the humility of being unable to climb a rope. Or, from a different perspective, to revel in your ability to spike that volleyball higher than the smarty-pants who has no trouble in math, and to run faster and farther too. What I really learned from gym class: that there were kids who could do things that I simply couldn't. Also, to be a good sport about this, or at least not to cry when it was time for the annual volleyball unit.
This could be said about the elementary and secondary school curriculum as a whole, I think: that when schools narrow the realms in which students can shine, they stunt children's nascent appreciation of the diversity of human talents. Shining and limitations alike need to be broadly distributed -- because it's important for every child to find some things she's good at, and equally important for children to appreciate others' differing abilities.
And, last but not least, it's important for children to learn to persist in activities that they themselves are not very good at but that are, for good reason, worth doing. When I was in middle school, I decided to join the cross-country team. It was an odd choice, as I'm not especially fast. I suspect I did so out of the realization that if I did not take action, I was destined to spend my whole life as the person who couldn't do a single sit-up, while around me stronger, more adept athletes played games that looked like fun, if only you had sufficient abilities to play. For six years I was not only the worst runner on the team but one of the worst runners in the entire county, but I kept at it and made a lot of friends I wouldn't have had otherwise. If I had been able to show off my vocabulary and my math skills in gym class, I'm not sure I would have bothered.
Of course, I knew I was no star athlete based on recess and pick-up games around the neighborhood, but it means something different when the New York States Board of Regents is counting the number of sit-ups you can (or in my case cannot) do. I am not advocating humiliation as a general teaching tool; the point, rather, is that when schools provide a variety of domains in which children are encouraged to succeed, children come to recognize that people's talents are diverse and that respect, therefore, is to be distributed as broadly as difference.
Gym class, in sum, has never been all fun and games. For some people it wasn't fun. For others, it was too important to count as a game. I'm all in favor of making it more fun, and even for including health information, but keep the test prep out it. (Incidentally, one teacher in the article remarks that she includes health information because "during a 30-minute class, it would be difficult for the children to keep moving constantly." Seriously? During a 30-minute class, it would seem difficult to prevent children from moving constantly.) Glad though I am never to have to play it again, long live volleyball.