CASPER Seeks Friendlier Physical Education Curriculum

Dale Steiner, History (photo Jeff Teeter)
Cathrine Himberg, a CSU, Chico physical education professor, believes "physical education should be about encouraging every single student to become active for life." Being active throughout life promotes health, and without health, a person's other skills may be difficult to use. The Centers for Disease Control reminds adults of the importance of exercise to promote health, yet many people don't exercise at all. Himberg believes this sedentary lifestyle starts in elementary school physical education classes.

As she talked with people, from the elderly to the very young, she heard repeated tales of the humiliation of P.E., whether it was being picked last for a game, or failing fitness tests while everyone watched. These experiences remain with people for a lifetime. Himberg said, "I see tears in their eyes. I can see that it has hurt them."

When she visited classrooms, Himberg saw teachers using inappropriate activities in their P.E. lessons. Himberg heard her colleagues discussing possible improvements, but when she looked at her son's classroom experiences, she realized that teachers were still using inappropriate practices. As a parent, Himberg recognized how having a child impacted her evaluation of the educational system. "You look at them, and you don't ever want anything to hurt them," she said. Although her son does well in P.E., she could see that some of his friends were having a tough time.

After sitting in on a discussion of dodge ball at the 1998 National Conference, Himberg came home and talked with her son and his friend about P.E. "The boys and I came up with the CASPER name and slogan that night," she said. CASPER (Concerned Adults and Students for Physical Education Reform) seeks to eliminate humiliating and wasteful practices such as having captains choose teams, playing elimination games, performing fitness tests while other students watch, and waiting in lines. When captains choose teams, the least capable students are humiliated by being picked last. When children are picked last, "It makes them feel like losers. You wouldn't do that in any other subject. But, for some reason, it just seems to be OK in P.E. Well, it is not OK in P.E.," said Himberg.

In elimination games such as dodge ball, the students who need the most skill practice get the least because they are out of the game quickly. Himberg pointed out that it is easy to change these games to be more inclusive, so no one is permanently out of the game. For example, a student who is out could do something else to get back into the game, like collect five high-fives from other students.

Students learn skills by practicing them. When students wait for turns, they are not developing skills. Himberg said, "Compare that to a math class. You're having the whole class do problems, but you only have two pencils....If you want to learn skills, you've got to have equipment for every child, and every child has to be involved the whole time." If there isn't enough equipment, teachers can structure a variety of related activities so children are not waiting around.

Inclusiveness is an important part of CASPER's message. All children should be able to participate in developmentally appropriate activities.

CASPER's Web site, has examples of inappropriate practices, ways for teachers, parents, and students to encourage schools to end them, and links to other resources. One of these sites, P.E. Central, has a wealth of activity suggestions.

Himberg emphasized that the negative experiences do not reflect any negative intent on the part of teachers. CASPER's membership has a high proportion of teachers. Elementary schools often treat P.E. as a very low priority item. In times of budget cuts, P.E teacher positions are eliminated, and classroom teachers, with little or no P.E. training, are responsible for physical education. As a result, what often happens is some sort of organized sport or game during recess. But organized recess is not physical education.

Since it's inception in March, CASPER has garnered regional and national radio talk-show attention. Himberg believes this high level of interest in changing physical education "comes from the fact that people out there, including the producers and the hosts of these shows, have experienced [inappropriate P.E. activities] and they can relate."

Last month, she passed out 750 CASPER buttons at a national meeting of P.E. teachers and teacher educators, and found many of the leaders wearing them during the conference. "The general feeling is, it's about time somebody was doing something about this," she said.

Himberg is writing grants, forming an advisory board, and seeking sponsors for the nonprofit organization. She hopes to see CASPER evolve into a nationwide effort to bring change to schools, change that will lead to a healthier, more active population.


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