The New Middle School Gym Class

Phys ed has changed, and there are other options for exercise too.

Girl with inline skates and helmet
Kane Skennar / Getty Images

Now that my older child is in middle school, there are some trade-offs in terms of physical activity. There's no more recess, but kids can walk outside after lunch—if they finish eating quickly. They spend a little more time in gym class than they did in elementary school. Students don't play on the playground before or after school, but they do walk laps around the track if they arrive at school before the bell rings.

There are more opportunities for school sports, and many kids participate in sports that are not based at school too. And they can ride their bikes or walk to school, at least during the months of the year that road conditions allow it.

Even given all that, I still worry about the lack of recess, since free, unstructured play is so beneficial, even for tweens. While there is plenty of room for improvement, it does seem that many school districts understand the value of physical activity for kids in all grade levels The School Health Policies and Practices Study (or SHPPS, conducted periodically by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to assess school health policies) gives the following stats:

  • 60% of districts require and 32% recommend that elementary schools provide regularly scheduled recess. (No word on middle schools.)
  • 12% of districts require and 33% recommend that elementary schools provide regular "physical activity breaks" outside of physical education class and recess. In middle school, the percentages drop slightly to 11% required and 23% recommended.
  • Since 2000 (a prior iteration of the SHPPS study), there's been a big jump in the percentage of states that provided lesson plans or learning activities for middle school physical education. About 60% of states now provide this information to schools.

Track It Down

There's also been an update in the way schools evaluate middle school students in physical education classes.

Sixty-four percent of states (vs. about 30% in 2000) now provide schools with plans or tools for assessing students' performance and health. These could be written tests, skill performance tests, or fitness level tests.

And instead of, or in addition to, those types of evaluations, some middle schools now assess students' physical activity levels through fitness trackers, monitors, pedometers, or activity logs. My own middle-schooler is required to wear a heart rate monitor during PE class. This is only required in a few states and recommended in about a third of them. But unlike other kinds of assessments, these tools can offer kids instant feedback on what they're doing, and they may even encourage students to be more active.

If you're not sure what the phys ed situation is in your child's middle school, find out (even if you have less-than-fond memories of your time in middle school; things have changed a lot!). Ask your student how much time per week she spends in PE and what types of activities she does in class.

You may be surprised to learn that she's using inline skates or hopping on the elliptical machine.

Also find out whether your child gets any other opportunities for physical activity during the school day. He needs at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily, and school can be an important source of at least some of that exercise. And if he's not into school sports, there are many other options out there!

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