Chicago area schools taking fresh approach to fitness

You may remember gym class as a time for dodgeball and push-ups, but today’s students are more likely to do yoga and play new games while rocking out to their favorite tunes while in physical education class.

“PE has really changed,” says Curt Hanson, physical education and health teacher at the Wolcott School in Chicago.

Schools are far more aware of how physical exertion during the school day benefits students not only physically but also mentally and academically.

“Our focus is on movement and moving the body, which gives their brains the energy needed to help them focus better in class,” Hanson explains. “Scientific research is constantly proving that students and adults who move around during the day are able to focus and get more work done.”

Brickton Montessori School in Chicago uses a similar approach.

“We use gross motor as a strategy to refocus,” says Erica Lane, directress at Brickton. “In the middle of the work morning, we have a brain break when we take students out to run for five or 10 minutes. Getting that energy out with their whole body really helps them to focus on their cognitive work.”

The brain break is separate from the school’s formal education classes. Those classes, however, also have benefits beyond developing sports skills.

“While there is some skill building with dribbling, there is also a team building component,” says Lane.

Gone are the days of gym class being a low point in the day for the children who were always picked last during team selection. Today, teachers are focusing on building up students of all abilities. “We have the ability to develop the self-esteem of each student, not just the most athletic students. Our activities encompass everyone in the school no matter their athletic ability,” says Hanson.

Hanson also notes the social aspect of being active.

“Sports and activities are a great way to meet people in college and outside of high school,” he says. “I feel that I can give each student the basics and tools for each sport so that when they go to college they feel comfortable joining a club team or joining an intramural team.”

Classes are much more inclusive and feature a wide range of options. Brickton features an eight-week yoga session, and students at Wolcott play new sports, including some Hanson discovered in Europe and some he has created. He also ups the fun factor by playing popular music during class.

Unlike previous generations, students today are much aware of the importance of being active and moving.

“They recognize the importance of going outside and playing,” Lane says. That awareness is at the forefront thanks in part to Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move Program.” Hanson says it helped him develop the physical education curriculum at Wolcott, including assigning students homework outside of school if students miss class.

“My hope is that each student can exercise with their family or friends and create an opportunity for more people to be physically active and live healthier lives,” Hanson.

Part of Making the Grade, a special advertising education guide.

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