Rethinking fitness in primary schools: Considering

Darren Powell
Auckland PENZ Leadership
Symposium 2011
[email protected]
Introduction and Overview
Fitness at your school?
Research background – NZ and overseas
Children’s understanding of fitness, fatness
and PE
Is there a better way?
Fitness challenge
Time to share...then reconnect
1. What fitness activities do you do at your school, how
many times a week and how long is each session?
2. How are your fitness sessions arranged
3. What do your children think fitness is?
4. Why do you do fitness at your school?
5. What do your students learn through fitness?
Do the answers to these last three questions
There are global concerns regarding children’s bodies and
 Fatness/obesity
 Fitness levels
 Sedentary behaviour
 Physical activity levels
 Eating habits
 ‘Couch-potatoism’
Schools are seen as a key site to “stem the tide” of the childhood
obesity epidemic (Taylor, 2007, p. 2).
HPE is considered an ‘obvious solution’ (Gard, 2011)and in some
circles, an obvious cause of childhood obesity (Crister, 2003).
However, many of these assumptions are increasingly being
contested and critiqued...
 The prevalance of obesity and epidemic status (Gard, 2011)
 If children are more inactive than past generations (see
Gard & Wright, 2005; McDermott, 2007).
 Whether physical activity is beneficial to the health, BMI,
or fitness of children (see Boreham & Riddoch, 2003;
Harris, Kuramoto, Schulzer, & Retallack, 2009; Twisk,
 Whether PA levels, BMI or fitness as children is linked with
that of adulthood (Flegal, Tabak, & Ogden, 2006; Twisk,
 If PE can ‘programme’ children to be physically active: “no
link between school physical education and either the
long-term health, body weight or physical activity levels of
children has ever been established” (Gard & Wright, 2005,
p. 4).
 The prevalence of obese children in NZ did not change
between 2002 and 2006/07, nor has children’s mean
BMI (Ministry of Health, 2008, p. 106).
 Maddison, Turley, Legge, & Mitchelhill’s (2010) NZ PA
survey demonstrated that 754 children (aged 5-9)
spent on average 195.5 minutes per day engaged in
moderate and vigorous intensity physical activity
 NZ studies that have attempted to improve children’s
fitness have rarely improved muscular power, aerobic
performance, speed, flexibility, or body mass of the
children (e.g. Hamlin, Ross, & Hong, 2002; Kidling,
Wagenaar, Cronin, McGuigan, & Schofield, 2009).
 disordered eating, bulimia, and anorexia (Evans, Rich,
Davies, & Allwood, 2008; Gard & Wright, 2005; Tinning
& Glasby, 2002);
size discrimination (Rich & Evans, 2005);
‘fat phobia’ (Sykes & McPhail, 2008);
an “impoverished engagement with physical culture”
(Burrows, 2005, p. 14), including excessive exercising
(Zanker & Gard, 2008);
children understand health as equating with body size,
shape and weight and a moral imperative to live healthy
lifestyles (Burrows, Wright, & Jungerson-Smith, 2002).
 Not so much about which side of the debate around
children’s fatness/fitness/PA is ‘true’ or ‘right’
My concern is that one side is regularly taken as a commonsense, taken-for-granted truth, even though there is much
uncertainty in the evidence
There are now many policies and practices to make kids
fitter, more active and less fat that are uncritically taken
into schools.
If we acknowledge that links between children’s fatness,
fitness, PA are complex and uncertain, then we can at least
question what practices are taking place in our schools.
This uncertainty led me to my Master’s thesis topic....
 Auckland, decile 8 co-ed state school with just over
270 students from years 1 to 6. 80% of students born
outside of New Zealand.
 School PE programme based on aquatics,
interschool/intraschool sports, and fitness.
 Year 5 class
 28 children in total, including 13 girls and 15 boys.
 Sometimes around the field, sometimes around the
 Stretches at start, walking ‘cool-down’ at end.
Six children (three girls and three boys) from a range of
ethnicities were asked to be official fitness researchers. All
six were nine years of age.
 During Jump Jam/cross-country sessions over one week, the
children participated as per usual and took photographs - 421 in
 The following week I talked with each of the 6 child-researchers
(60-75 minutes) using semi-structured interview technique.
 The aim of this study was not to generalise how all children in NZ
understand fitness. These interviews were about the children’s voice
in expressing their own perspectives on their experiences. This is
what they told me...
 Complex tensions that made fitness “good and bad all
at the same time” (Sammy):
Tension #1: Fun vs Fatigue
All of the children I interviewed shared stories of how fitness created moments of
fun and fatigue, pleasure and displeasure, excitement and boredom.
“I like a lot of things about fitness.
Like, I like Jump Jam on the
good songs. Something I do like
about to cross country is how
you get to do...all of these
different cool exercises at the
beginning” (Jimi)
 Some of the children described
Jump Jam as being enjoyable
and fun based on the choice of
song and the moves performed
for each song.
Fatigue was articulated in two ways.
First, as boredom and weariness of particular songs, routines and/or movements
that the children felt were repeated too often.
Shreya, reflected on her photograph of Jump Jam below by saying “we have copied
them so much we know it...maybe we can make up our own and we may try
different things...”
Shreya: I like when you can run and you can exercise a little bit but the part I don’t like is you get
really tired...
Darren: What do you mean by tired? Can you describe how your body feels?
Shreya: Like I don’t want to do it anymore, I’m tired, I just want to sleep or sit down, or, yeah...
Darren: Why aren’t you allowed to have a sit down when you’re tired?
Shreya: ‘Cause that won’t help.
 I think it’s sort of like training and exercise. (Georgia)
 Getting exercise. (Sammy)
 It’s a kind of sport. (Joseph)
 A type of exercise that's good that helps you. (Jimi)
 Walking is fitness. (Daisy)
For the most part the children talked about fitness as an “an
activity that you do or an activity that helps you exercise
and maybe lose weight or something along the lines of
that...” (Shreya).
“Getting fit basically just means like means, in a
way, getting like non-fat, like, just helping your body to get
skinny. It’ll also let you fit through the door”. (Daisy)
 Georgia stated that children needed to get fit because it
“sort of makes you lose weight”.
 Joseph said fitness “makes your body like, healthy and like,
doesn’t make you like, that fat”.
 Jimi described fitness as being “good for your body because
if you don't do exercise you get really fat”.
A fit person was someone who looks “skinny” (Daisy) or
had “big muscles” (Sammy).
Conversely, an unfit person would look “non-skinny”
(Daisy), or “fat” (Joseph/Daisy/Shreya).
Darren: If I had a photo of a whole lot of different people,
could we tell if they were fit just by looking at them?
Jimi: Yes.
Darren: What would a fit person look like do you think?
Jimi: A person that has lots of muscles.
Darren: Anything else?
Jimi: Not really.
Darren: What about a person who was unfit…what would
they look like?
Jimi: They would be really fat, sit on the couch all day.
The children were sure that they were doing fitness lessons to get
fit = skinny. Sammy and the other children found it difficult to
express what they learnt in fitness lessons:
Sammy: Um...(long pause)...moves?
Darren: Haven’t you already learnt the moves? Once you’ve learnt
the moves, what do you learn after that?
Sammy: More moves?
Darren: What about cross country? What do you learn in cross
country training?
Sammy: Um...(long pause)...I...I learn...I
pause)...I’m not sure.
Shreya, Joseph and Georgia told me that indicators of success,
learning intentions and assessments were never used with fitness
When the children talked about getting fit or fitter, they were referring to
getting thin or thinner; fitness was directly related to bodily
appearance: being thin, getting skinnier, forming ‘big muscles’
and/or avoiding fatness.
It seemed normal for the children to desire thinness, avoid fatness, and to
talk about their bodies and behaviours in terms of body dissatisfaction,
monitoring of eating and exercise, guilt over inactivity, exercise for
weight loss, and a fear of fat.
The children’s responses also indicated they lamented the lack of
differentiation, individualisation and ownership of the lessons; fitness
lessons had a concrete ‘one-size-fits-all’ teaching technique that
children were expected to obediently follow.
Is it our responsibility to challenge these understandings of
fitness and fatness, and to be critical of practices that create
and/or maintain this emphasis on shaping children’s bodies
and behaviours???
 We can encourage children to create their own dance or
aerobics routines, using their own choices of moves and
 We can support children to create games, scavenger hunts,
orienteering courses, and ‘amazing races’ where they can
sprint, jog and rest while experiencing joy and meaning,
rather than repetition.
 We can work with our students to develop physical
education experiences that are not only more fun, but more
meaningful, creative and educative.
 We can critically examine our PE practices, like Jump Jam
and cross country, and consider how we may create,
maintain or challenge children’s understanding of
PA/PE/fitness as a solution to fatness.
“I would make fitness less tiring and more fun” (Shreya).
“choose our own actions...get to create your own. But when you follow you’re
just copying...but inventing your own moves, I think it’s more fun than
copying” (Joseph)
Georgia explained how she would rather play a game her and her friends made
up called Spider, than cross-country running:
The children provided over 70 interesting ideas to make
fitness lessons more fun, creative and meaningful than
Jump Jam and cross-country. Here’s one of mine…
Fresh ideas for a 15 min PE lesson or series of 15 min sessions...
In a small group:
1. Brainstorm (3 mins)
2. Choose one idea
(students’ needs?) and
develop it further using
the unit plan.
3. Share your fresh idea
with group (1 min).
4. When you have taught
this unit, share it with
group on new
Consider various movements (running,
throwing, skipping, dancing)
Consider different contexts (unit themes,
festivals, cultures, games, events)
Consider learning intentions for all students.
To create and plan for a series short PE lessons to be taught
with your students this year or early next year.
Base your plan on one of the ideas just brainstormed (or
my idea).
2. Fill in the
parts of the unit plan first, then
complete the rest if/when you have a few minutes spare.
3. Keep asking “What are all of my students’ learning
needs?” and “How will each lesson connect my teaching
with their learning?
4. Keep asking “Can this unit be more educational,
meaningful, creative and/or enjoyable for my all students
than traditional fitness sessions?”
At the end, each group will share key ideas from their unit
plan with the rest of the group – 1 min max!
If any of the issues, ideas, research or debates interest you OR if you want
to continue developing your PE programme and our PE community,
please join my Facebook page:
Powell PE: Rethinking fitness in primary
1. Type here
2. Click here
3. Click Like!
Now you will be ready to post new ideas, successes, stories about your
PE/fitness experiences, as well as commenting on others’, receiving links to
useful resources, and creating a NZ PE community of passionate primary
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