Physical Education the Classical Way

Mr. Seth Rutt
The classical model of education has seen significant growth over the past 40 years. The return to traditional and time-tested methods of teaching is integral to developing student character and training them in truth, goodness, and beauty. In classical schools, subjects including literature, the sciences, and mathematics have been restored to their previous standards of rigor. But what about physical education?
Although many subjects have made a shift back to a classical model, physical education has been a gray area within classical schools. Many physical education programs in classical schools look similar to those in public schools. So how do we teach physical education the classical way? I believe there is a way to focus elementary physical education on truth, goodness, and beauty, which is what we do at JH Classical Academy.

Early American physical education was founded upon the Europeans' study of gymnastics. General principles of German- or Swedish-style gymnastics were implemented in American schools to grow physical literacy in children. Programs focused on the repetition of accurate movements, posture, flexibility and control. A typical school gymnasium had ropes, climbing structures, and various other apparatus. As American team sport grew in popularity, these apparatus were replaced with basketball goals, volleyball nets and bleachers. Today, the typical elementary physical education program is dominated by sports and games. Apparatus have been deemed unsafe and either removed from physical education programs or rarely utilized.

Recently, many schools have removed or limited their physical education programs. This may be attributed to the lack of efficacy in these programs. Today, we have highly unfit children lacking in strength, flexibility, postural strength, and general control of their bodies. As the focus on team sports has increased in students of younger ages, injuries to children have increased as well. In 2009, Stanford Children’s Health reported more than 3.5 million children aged 14 or younger experienced a sport or recreation related injury in America. 

There are many concerns people have about young children starting rigorous physical training at a young age. Many of these concerns are deemed myths when you look at research. In 2016, the American College of Sports Medicine published an article showing that resistance training will not negatively affect children when under the supervision of trained professionals. In fact, resistance training has been proven to be important in a child’s health and development.

At Jackson Hole Classical Academy, we utilize a cyclical model in our elementary physical education program, as opposed to a unit model. In a cyclical model, lessons are revisited throughout the year in order to regularly improve skills. Gymnastics is the cornerstone of our classical program, with each cycle consisting of six lessons and two gymnastics lessons. Students learn accurate movement through drills and exercises focused on agility, balance, coordination, and strength. Students do not learn the rules of specific sports, but instead learn and practice physical skills with a high level of accuracy. Lessons are prepared in a way that uses progressions at the macro and micro level. From year to year, individual school years, and during individual lessons, each student progresses from simple to more complex skills.

In alignment with the classical model, the content of a physical education program should focus on the physical development of the child. Posture, flexibility, agility, balance, coordination, strength, and endurance are a few of the key components of a physically literate child. In a gymnastics lesson, students should be challenged through tumbling, climbing, vaulting, and balance drills. In a skill-building lesson, students should learn essential skills needed in life such as throwing, catching, kicking, swimming, striking, and other diverse skills. Resistance training should mostly come from body weight or light weights and focus on correct form rather than number of repetitions.

When a quality, classical physical education program is implemented, it does not take away from the “fun” factor of PE. On the contrary, students learn to have fun while being challenged, learning new skills, and becoming physically fit. This ought to be the focus of any classical physical education program and I strive to implement that here at Jackson Hole Classical Academy.

Mountain Range


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