5 ways to reimagine health and physical education curriculum

Alberta Education is currently revising the K-12 curriculum for all subject areas. According to their website, the curriculum renewal will place “a greater emphasis on 21st century competencies and literacy and numeracy across subjects and grades. This approach will help build an even stronger foundation for student success in a dynamic, global society and economy.”

While literacy and numeracy are fundamental elements of any education system, there is another element that is glaringly missing. Health. If we truly desire “student success in a dynamic, global society and economy” we cannot afford to ignore the foundational role of health in today’s increasingly sedentary, inactive and unhealthy society.

Here are five ideas to consider in re-imagining the value and purpose of health and physical education in schools.

Literacy isn’t limited to reading and writing. In 2002, the United Nations stated: “Literacy is crucial to the acquisition, by every child, youth and adult, of essential life skills that enable them to address the challenges they can face in life, and represents an essential step in basic education, which is an indispensable means for effective participation in the societies and economies of the 21st century.” Physical and health literacy are critical elements of education that help address societal challenges (such as health – see below) and teach essential life skills for effective citizenship.

Physical and health literacy are just as important for the development of contributing citizens as literacy and numeracy. While Alberta students consistently score well among developed nations in PISA tests (second in sciences, third in reading and fourteenth in math), where we’re falling down is health. Canada was ranked seventeenth out of 29 “rich nations” for overall child well-being in a 2013 UNICEF report. We need health to have equal priority with literacy and numeracy in our curriculum.

Health and education are inextricably linked. All the research says the more educated you are the healthier you are, and the healthier you are the more educated you’ll be. Over and over again, the data says that if you add more physical education in the school day it won’t lower academic scores. As an example, girls who had physical education for 70 or more minutes per week attained significantly higher reading and mathematics scores than did girls with 35 or fewer minutes per week.

Our kids aren’t healthy. The 2017 ParticipAction Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth found that, of children aged five to 17, only nine per cent get 60 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity; only 24 per cent meet the guidelines of no more than two hours of recreational screen-time per day and 33 per cent have trouble falling asleep. Add to this what we know about deteriorating mental health and decreased nutrition for kids and we are in trouble. Alberta has surpassed the $20 billion mark—almost 40 per cent of our provincial budget—in health spending. Now more than ever, we need to invest in our future—a healthy future. Investing now in healthy schools, including prioritizing health and physical education, can save millions in future health costs. Still want to marginalize health and physical education?

We need to educate “the whole child.” In health education we teach students to understand and take care of their own bodies, to make healthy, informed decisions and lead healthy active lives. This knowledge and application is essential to becoming a contributing citizen of Alberta and the world. In physical education, we teach students to move with confidence and competence in a variety of environments. As well, movement is essential to who we are as human beings; it is absolutely critical to growth and development over the lifespan. The health and academic benefits of physical education are important, but are truly just an extension of how movement is part of our human identity and helps us negotiate the diverse terrain of life. Therefore, education should not be considered “whole-child” unless it includes education of the physical. In the words of education researchers Bonnie Blankenship and Suzan Ayers, “physical education is important because movement is joyful, pleasurable, provides intrinsic satisfaction, and can be personally meaningful and central to the human experience.”