Image: Payton Brenham, 12, left, and teacher Terry Wade
Lm Otero  /  ASSOCIATED PRESS
Payton Brenham, 12, left, takes direction from teacher Terry Wade during a physical education class at Northrich Elementary School in Richardson, Texas. Experts say that physical education classes have evolved to focus less on team sports and more on individual recreation activities.
updated 1/14/2008 3:14:16 PM ET 2008-01-14T20:14:16

With music pumping in the background, the kids in Terry Wade’s physical education class are in constant motion, going from sit-ups to jumping jacks to curls with light weights.

After their 45-minute session, the sixth-graders who are sweating the most, or as Wade calls it, “burning butter,” get stickers.

“My main goal and emphasis is getting these kids up and moving,” said Wade, who teaches at Northrich Elementary in the Richardson school district in suburban Dallas. “It’s ’Can this kid do this for a lifetime?’ I don’t care how good they are. I care if they’re having fun.”

Instead of team sports, Wade and other physical education teachers across the country are focusing more on individual activities that students can incorporate into their lives long after their school days are over.

Experts say the shift also helps gym teachers include children who are struggling with their weight. With individual activities, overweight students can work at their own pace, and not be left on the sidelines. And they can take part in lower impact activities like weightlifting, yoga or martial arts.

“Now we organize our classes in such a way where no kids are sitting,” said Susan Henderson, coordinator for physical education and health for the Dallas-area Mesquite school district.

She said that even if the lesson is about a team sport like football, they focus on skills like passing the ball.

“Nobody is waiting their turn,” Henderson said.

Steve Jefferies, head of the department of health, human performance and nutrition at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Wash., is a fan of treasure hunts and other activities that students can do without realizing they are getting exercise. That shifts the focus to finding things, not the half-mile walk to get there, he said.

Jefferies suggests teachers wear a weight belt to get an idea of what an overweight student experiences.

“You’ve got to find something that each individual person enjoys,” said Jefferies, who also runs a Web site to help physical education teachers keep up with the latest developments.

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More focus on eating right
Gym teachers also are placing a greater emphasis on general health and nutrition, said Craig Buschner, president of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education.

“This field had to make changes. It’s not about dodge ball and it’s not about duck-duck-goose,” said Buschner. He added that the obesity epidemic has helped educators make a case that students need more physical education time.

How to deal with overweight children in class is something that’s on the minds of future gym teachers, too.

“My undergraduates are asking ’What do I do?”’ said Josh Trout, of California State University, Chico, who has written a book set to be released in February called “Supersized PE: A Comprehensive Guidebook for Teaching Overweight Students.”

Wade said she walks a fine line when instructing her students: “I don’t want to push anyone past what they’re capable of doing, but I don’t want them to take it too easy.”

As the morning light poured in from the windows in her gym, she asked her sixth-graders: “How are you graded in this class?”

A chorus of replies comes quickly: “Effort.”

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