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Classroom VOICES

The difference between physical education and physical activity during COVID

March 18, 2021



by Jim Hambel, elementary school PE teacher, New York City

It’s been a year since I’ve been in my classroom, and yes, the gymnasium is my classroom. Physical education has faced many of the same problems as other subject areas in the past year, along with its own unique challenges. 

For teachers in any subject area, social emotional learning and mindfulness have come to the forefront during remote learning. More work than ever is needed to help students adapt to the circumstances of their learning environments. My classes have been including character learning as well as SEL. Students have the opportunity to go at their own pace. Students are encouraged to try as many activities as possible with increasing or decreasing difficulty.

My classes have been including character learning as well as SEL. Students have the opportunity to go at their own pace.

Some aspects of elementary PE are transferable to online learning. The basic approach to PE in elementary school involves building the core skills needed to play full sports, and many of these skills involve individual effort that can be completed remotely. We don’t learn soccer, for instance, we learn kicking and dribbling which can be used for soccer, and some of those skills can be taught online.

But really teaching physical education is inherently difficult through online learning. The easy solution has been online videos that students can put on any time and follow along. But is this real physical education? It’s more likely the parallel of teaching literature by watching a read aloud of a book and having students follow along. It doesn’t consider, for instance, the different abilities, skill levels, interests and needs of each student. In other words, it’s just one size fits all physical activity.

The easy solution has been online videos that students can put on any time and follow along. But is this real physical education?

Real quality physical education involves teaching the why and how of exercise. It’s not a one size fits all model, and remote learning can make it difficult to address the individual needs of students. Many videos simply ask students to watch and participate: If you can do the actions on screen, great. If you can’t, there’s no alternative.

And it’s not just fitness. My students have loved doing cardio drumming, tabata and even bowling at home. Students work cooperatively with each other. They love doing yoga and even a simple minute of mindfulness and breathing. Our focus is on the students enjoying and wanting to take accountability for their learning. 

From the start of remote learning, I wanted to rewrite the narrative. I’m colleagues with many amazing and dedicated PE teachers who are also masters of different workouts. On a whim, I asked my friend Melanie Levenberg of DANCEPL3Y to teach a class. I’d set up the zoom registration, record the meeting and admit people to the meeting. All she had to do was focus on teaching.

In an era where eye strain is common because we spend so much time on our computers there was one simple edict — if you can make it live, awesome. If you can’t, you can watch the replay. The episodes are free and the target audience is students and teachers. She taught the class; it was amazing, and the rest is history. 

The one-year anniversary and 50th episode of our Wednesday Wellness Series is coming up soon. There’s many options in terms of classes. It’s not one-size fits all, and it showcases what quality physical education is. I hope to be able to keep running the program if and when we go back to our gyms and schools full time. There are several technology tools I have become adept at using including Buncee, Pear Deck, Wakelet, Flipgrid (to name a few), and that I can’t wait to keep using.

Teaching during the pandemic has made me confident that I will be able to keep the high level of quality PE regardless of the circumstances.

Jim Hambel is a 4th/5th grade teacher in New York City. Jim has three teaching licenses, and over 10 years of teaching experience in the areas of physical and special education. Jim was named the 2020 NYS AHPERD Elementary PE Section Amazing Person. Recently he joined the Professional Bowlers Association. Jim is an ambassador for many of the educational technology programs he talks about. 

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