School teaches kids that exercise is stupid

School separates exercise into something different from our main job. When we started homeschooling, one of the biggest shifts I had to make in my own thinking is that exercise is not school. I had to teach myself, every time my kids were playing, that learning is not divided between academics and gym, learning is both parts.

It is not natural to distinguish between leisure time and work time. If you are doing what you love, and what you feel like doing when you feel like doing it, then you fit fun and games into your normal, every day life. Robert Wheeler points out in the Journal of Contemporary History that with the advent of factories, people had to schedule time for leisure. And when kids started going to school for factory worker training, it also trained them to separate sport and work in school.

So I thought to myself: what would adult life look like if someone told me that exercise is as important as reading and writing?

The first thing I think is that I wouldn’t be so fast to give it up as an adult. What we model for kids is that play is important, when we make time for gym in the midst of academics. But as we get older, there is no gym class.

School teaches us that anything important is taught in a class, and there is no class for exercise, so exercise is not important. Ironically, high school health classes might do the most damage in this regard because they are generally not required for the smartest kids but only the kids who “couldn’t handle” the regular science track. And, of course, these classes are for studying exercise in a book instead of doing actually doing it.

We could talk about reinstating gym class. Which is a popular topic. But that is not likely to happen because gym is expensive, and also, kids don’t get tested on gym, so school districts don’t like to give up potential test prep hours for gym time.

Instead of talking about reinstating gym, I think we should talk about ending the cultural idea that if something is important, there is a class for it. Because this sends kids away thinking that the wide range of stuff they enjoy that is not a subject in school is not worthy of their time.

Once you take away the idea of proscribed learning, kids have a sense that whatever they are interested in is important. And they have a sense that if they feel like playing and exercising, it’s important too. When you give a kid freedom to have self-directed learning, you don’t need to tell them what to learn or what interests them, and you don’t need to tell them when to play or when to exercise.

23 replies
  1. mbl
    mbl says:

    And let’s not forget about kinesthetic learners. For a KE, even if you decide to go the drill and kill method, reviewing math facts while tossing a beanbag to and fro while they are on a balance board is far superior to them attempting to sit at a desk.

    This is from my memory, but I think it was in Leonard Sax’s Why Gender Matters that there was a classroom of 3rd grade boys in which all they did was remove the chairs. Test score increased by 30%.

    In that first picture picture of your son, he is simply stunning.

  2. Julie
    Julie says:

    Our district still has gym. But my daughters hated gym. I think doing a type of physical activity they hate puts a lot kids off physical activity in general. Doing what you enjoy is the way to stay active. Homeschooling gives kids the opportunity to be more active, try different things and then stick with the activities they enjoy. It also allows them to be active when they feel the need for it, not just third period three days a week or whatever.

  3. Nicole
    Nicole says:

    I have mixed feeling about gym class. One the one hand I agree with you-exercise is just as important as anything else taught in school. On the other hand-I hated gym class growing up. My school district had gym class twice a week for grades K-8, and required high school students to take it for at least two years.

    The problem with gym class, just like every other class you take in school, is that it promotes one single narrow view of the subject. My gym classes were all about team sports involving some kind of ball. Being athletic meant being good with balls. If you weren’t good with balls, you were not athletic. That was the rule.

    I have dyslexia and a developmental coordination disorder, so I’m pretty much incapable of catching a ball, and I never know which direction to run, or even what side of the field my team is on. I’m pretty sure my record of scoring points for the wrong team remains undefeated in my school district to this day. :-D

    A few years ago I started jogging. Soon after, I realized that I enjoy running. And, not only do I enjoy running, but I’m actually pretty good at it.

    Now, I’m running marathons-something I could done back then, but didn’t because I was too busy forging doctors notes, pretending to be injured and worrying about getting hit in the face with balls.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Your comment lays out really good reasoning for why the problems with gym are the same with all the other subjects: we want to explore those topics in a way that’s best for us. So just as force-fed english isn’t good for kids who only want to read Manga, force-fed gym isn’t good for people who want to do solitary exercise.


    • lyndap
      lyndap says:

      I too didn’t find a sport that worked for me in school. It wasn’t until I was out of school that I found several sports that weren’t offered in school. Sport is a big part of my life (some might argue too big, but whatever). I only wish I found them when I was younger. I’m trying to help my children find a sport or a form of exercise that will motivate them after they are out of school. One son’s sport of choice is skiing. Actually homeschooling and skiing fit nicely together. He’s ready but I’m just not quite ready to pull the plug on school…yet.

    • Karen
      Karen says:

      I too thought I was uncoordinated and nonathletic because I suck at team sports, which is all that was offered in gym class. It wasn’t until I was in my 20’s and I discovered yoga and golf that I had any idea of myself as physically competent at anything.

  4. jhwordsmith
    jhwordsmith says:

    You might be interested in this book: which is all about the connection between exercise and the brain. There is a chapter on a school called Naperville Central High School, and what happened when they created a “New Gym” programme meant to fire the brain and develop “personal best”. When I think about my homeschooling programme for the future, running around and having fun first thing in the morning figures high on the plan.

  5. Jane
    Jane says:

    Honestly, I haven’t noticed that homeschooled kids are particularly buff, or in better shape, than kids in public school. Just haven’t seen it.

    • Julie
      Julie says:

      Really? I don’t know if I would call the hs kids I know “buff” but there definitely aren’t as many who look overweight as there were in either of my daughters’ classes when they were in public school.

    • Karen
      Karen says:

      What’s with the passive-aggressive snark? If you dislike homeschooling so much, why are you here?

      • Jane
        Jane says:

        I think homeschool is great! I just don’t think all public schools are bad, all the time, in every situation.

    • Nicole
      Nicole says:

      Exercise isn’t about looking a certain way. It’s about being healthy.

      The point of teaching kids about exercise is so they can know what being healthy really is, and also understand how to make themselves healthy.

    • mbl
      mbl says:

      About one month into homeschooling I realized that there were practically no overweight HS kids. 20+ kids in our group were at the zoo and everyone headed for the playground for about an hour, between exhibits. The kids were generally in the 4-14 range and ran around like banshees. The fluidity of the group was impressive given the age spread.

      Another thing I realized was that so much of school requires that children ignore their body’s signals. It goes beyond bathroom breaks and lunch time. It was a chilly Autumn day and the mothers all had coats on. The kids were arrayed in everything from winter coats to tank tops. There is no way the kids in tank tops or short sleeves would have been allowed to do that at school. Why on earth do we assume that the thermometer should unilaterally dictate what makes a child comfortable?

      I think there is a huge cost to losing our ability to listen to our bodies. There are so many options for refueling the body from regimented meals to frequent snacks/mini meals. Why not figure out what works for the individual and go from there?

      Since “nearly all HS kids are thin” has been on my radar, I have seen well over a hundred HS kids, and it still holds true.

  6. pr
    pr says:

    What I like about homeschooling is that it helps remove the paradigm of “exercise” all together, which is one that we have created in order to deal with an affluent, i.e. sedentary, society. Movement all day has been proven over and over to be better than a lot of sitting followed by “exercise,” even high-intensity exercise.

    This is a pretty interesting post about movement, or the lack thereof. ( My reasons for homeschooling are just as much about my kids’ bodies as their minds.

    • Cristen H
      Cristen H says:

      Yes. Whenever I’m out with my young kids, and we see a jogger or someone otherwise “exercising” if my kids ask why they are running my response is “probably because it feels good.” I don’t talk about “exercise” with them. I’ll instead say how good it feels to move my body, how much I enjoy a brisk walk, yoga or dancing, etc. Exercise is so often just another chore for many adults. There’s no reason to perpetuate that message.

  7. Amy K.
    Amy K. says:

    My kids attend a diverse, urban public school in Northern CA. They get PE twice a week, plus a dance class taught by a parent volunteer once a week. My first grader’s teacher does calisthenics with them first thing in the morning and then they do about five minutes of yoga stretches after recess.

    My kids don’t attend the afterschool program, which is far from perfect. They don’t have a lot of equipment, and the classes are taught by college students who don’t have expertise in art, music or other enrichment. But the one thing they *are* really good at is getting those kids moving–Capture the Flag, soccer, Red Rover, and lots of unstructured play outside. I pick up a friend’s son on occasion to ferry him to Kung Fu and he is wiped out and I’m impressed that he can make it through a rigorous hour-long class.

    What stinks is that so few kids walk to school these days.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This is a great example of how we look at school in a skewed way. If you asked adults if they want to do calisthenics for exercise they’d say no. It’s so boring. But we somehow think kids will like that. Adults don’t want to be told what exercise to do, and neither do kids. It takes the fun out of it.


      • Amy K.
        Amy K. says:

        Yeah, “calisthenics” sounds boring and out of the 50s so maybe I used the wrong word. Another way to describe their little routine would be “gentle dancing and stretching to relaxing music chosen by a teacher that has a knack for picking music her students really love.”

        Does this still sound boring to you? Is it automatically boring and bad because it’s taking place at a public school?

        I’d say 75 percent of the students in my son’s really love it.

        Also, it’s just one part of their exercise menu as I mentioned previously.

      • Dionne
        Dionne says:

        I tolerated school. It wasn’t hideous but I was always very conscious that I just had to get through it and then I could do what I want and find a job that I loved. That didn’t quite work out. The advice I’m taking from you now is to suck it up, do a job that you’re good at, you can’t do what you enjoy all day. So how does this fit in with homeschooling? Aren’t I, with my two decades of boredom, better prepared for your advice?

  8. Lyndap
    Lyndap says:

    My son had a wonderful first grade teacher. Each morning, when it wasn’t raining, she would take her kids on a walk around the school, looking at a variety of different things and soaking up the outdoors before their settled in to do some work. The kids would also do short yoga sessions during the day. Her classroom was a true pleasure to work in. The kids and the teacher were so respectful and calm towards one another during their work time. I have yet to see another classroom like that.

    But fast forward a few years later, some parent complained about the “yoga” instruction and she had to stop. Feel bad for the kids that are missing out. Exercise or physical activity is not stupid.

  9. Susie
    Susie says:

    I recently removed my son from a private school that had daily PE plus 2 recesses. (That was the only aspect of school that was working for him). Now I am homeschooling him, I am challenged to find enough exercise opportunities for him. He’d like to play pick-up games of soccer but everyone is on their xbox or in an organized sport or in school. We are making do for now with him riding his scooter with friends. We plan to start swimming. But he could use HOURS of kid-organized exercise per day – just like I got when I was his age.

  10. Charlie Hendricks
    Charlie Hendricks says:

    I’ve found that working out as a family and letting the kids see the us work out – is a good role model. My husband and I try very hard to make sure the kids see us exercising. I think it’s working. I also thing organized sports teach kids to be social and team members.

  11. Julie
    Julie says:

    Yes, I agree this is an important thing about homeschool. I hate to exercise, so I don’t. I do like to move–dance, hike, garden, build stuff, and do other nonsedentary activities, but it’s hard to shake the idea that one must “exercise” in some formal way.

    The other day, we were on a long drive, and the kids and I were all getting restless from too much car time. There’s this fantastic rest area in Idaho, between Blackfoot and Idaho Falls on I-15, where there are trails that go back into a lava field. There are signs all along explaining the formation and ecology of the field, and altogether the trails are maybe a couple of miles. We got out of the car and just ran and ran and read the signs and climbed around and discovered caves in some of the fissures, and altogether we spent over an hour there, running. When we got back in the car, we were so refreshed and relaxed, and our bodies felt good. We didn’t do it because it was “exercise,” though; we did it because it was completely fun and engaging. If I had told the kids we were going to get out and do some exercise because exercise is good for you, I think we wouldn’t have stayed as long because we wouldn’t have had so much fun.

    I actually played two sports in high school, and I still hated gym class.

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