The acronym “PE” holds a lot of negative associations for some people, bringing back memories of seemingly impossible fitness tests and rope climbs, along with tween and teen mortification about changing in a school locker room and various other indignities like wedgies, dodge ball, and being chosen last for a team. Compare this to most people’s reaction to the words “summer camp.” Even the most modest day camps offer fun recollections of learning new sports, new crafts, new pool games, even new silly songs. A bad day at summer camp still beats a good day at school.
So why isn’t PE more like summer camp? Where is the spirit of adventure in learning something new in PE? How are kids supposed to develop a lifelong love of fitness and physical activity when the experience is often regarded as communal misery? No wonder school systems are tempted to cut PE back to the bare minimum or even eliminate it entirely.
Meanwhile, a number of sports groups and associations are keeping a wary eye on national physical activity statistics, especially for children. They know that the future of their sport depends on young people picking it up, but how do they pry them away from the Xbox? Surely if every kid just tried their sport a few times, they would be hooked.
This is where park and recreation agencies can help. On the one side, we have various sports organizations such as USTA and PGA, and most of them have “player development” programs designed to recruit new people into their particular sport. On the other side, we have schools that need help keeping their PE programs engaging for kids despite budget cuts and the squeeze placed on class time by standardized tests. Park and recreation agencies can act as the bridge between the two, bringing new sports into the schools either during PE or after school.
New indoor versions of outdoor sports such Ten and Under Tennis, Quickball baseball, SNAG golf, and Olympic Archery in Schools are already being used in schools to get kids hooked on sports while they’re still young, enthusiastic, and unafraid of failure. Even schools with tiny athletic facilities can squeeze these games into small gyms or multipurpose rooms. And outdoors, the U.S. Soccer Foundation’s Soccer for Success program goes even a step further, working with schools to help insure academic success as well as physical fitness. Parks and recreation benefits too, by developing a new generation of customers for tennis centers, golf courses, and other types of recreational facilities.
So maybe schools have a thing or two they can learn from park and recreation agencies—how to have fun, how to recreate, and how to keep learning fresh and exciting. It’s a lesson plan that keeps the spirit of summer camp going year-round and maybe even through a lifetime.
Elizabeth Beard is the Managing Editor for Parks & Recreation magazine.