Physical fitness inside school walls and beyond

At a time when reports claim that Chicago Public schools are minimizing physical education opportunities and omitting recess altogether, other local education institutions are placing their focus on physical as well as academic learning.

With organizations like the American Heart Association stressing the need for more physical education in schools and a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences that finds that physical activity promotes neuron growth, educators are finding that physical fitness is essential to their curriculums.

Beyond the basics 

Educators across the board find that students thoroughly enjoy and look forward to the time they spend in Physical Education classes. At Chicago Jewish Day School, kids love spending time on the school’s Lake Michigan beach property during their twice daily recess.

In addition, a recent partnership with the Chicago Park District allows kids to get outside and enjoy park district spaces as well, all too often a rarity for city schools. Twice weekly physical education classes are taught by a local youth sports company, and focus on team sports, individual sports and the importance of a lifetime fitness regime.

“As a faculty, we really feel the social and emotional is as important as academic,” says school Principal, Judy Finkelstein-Taff. “It enhances and advances students’ academic progress.”

At Latin School of Chicago, physical education is taken just as seriously. All grade levels meet six out of eight days at the school, which operates on an eight-day cycle. During the fifty minute class, students partake in a blend of cardio and muscular training as well as team and individual sports. “Overall, it definitely helps with stress and anxiety and is a release,” says Dan Houlihan, director of fitness and wellness at the school.

“It is good for them to have this time after so much time sitting in class and studying.” Houlihan stresses that one of his department’s goals is to get kids to realize that you don’t have to be morbidly obese to be unhealthy. “Inactivity leads to other problems down the line,” says Houlihan. “We are trying to get that understanding within them as soon as possible so that they create habits to last throughout their lifetime.”

Going the extra mile

Extracurricular activities are also offered at themany schools, as further incentive for students and staff to do what’s necessary to stay healthy. At Chicago Jewish Day School, children participate in activities like yoga, multi sports, dance and drama.

At Latin School, students have access to the school’s fitness center for a few hours each day. Additional activities offered by the school include an intense dance program, ultimate Frisbee, flag football and a month-long Iron Man competition. Teachers are even encouraged to participate in daily fitness classes, sometimes with students, and have access to nutrition speakers and personal trainers. “Students really do like it, because they see their teacher doing it, so they’re motivated to do it, too,” says Houlihan. “There’s a healthy competition.”

Going off-campus 

Sometimes, it’s sensible to go beyond school property and search for outside providers of physical activity. One such organization, The Little Gym in Evergreen Park, makes getting physical a breeze.

“With the lack of funding for schools, we are a resource for kids to make fitness fun and make it a habit,” says gym director, Darius Parker. “Students with highly developed motor skills will demonstrate a better level of school readiness.” Over four hundred kids hit The Little Gym’s mat each week for gymnastics and tumbling classes for children ages four months to twelve years.

Kids enjoy all aspects of The Little Gym, from classes that allow parental involvement to the sense of teamwork instructors instill. “I believe children thrive in this type of environment,” says Parker. On top of the obvious physical benefits of exercise, The Little Gym aims to make great lifelong esteem-building habits for students. “We gauge our success in terms of the self confidence that is gained as a result of the skills they learn.”

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