Picking up pace for kids

Published March 31, 2007


The third-graders in Paul Earnheart's physical education class lined up in two rows and started moving their feet to the music: Right foot in, right foot out, then the left foot in and left foot out. No. This was not the Hokey-Pokey. This was Dance Dance Revolution - a Japanese video game that Rock Crusher Elementary has started using to improve the cardiovascular health and coordination of kids.

The game, which is more like an aerobics class, features flashing arrows moving across a screen with animated characters. Players must step on the corresponding arrows on individual dance platforms.

"Move those feet, girls," Earnheart bellowed from the front. "That's it. You got it."

Beyonce's hit song Crazy in Love was blaring from the speakers.

Uh oh, uh oh, uh oh, oh no.

Got me looking so crazy right now, your love's

Got me looking so crazy right now

"This is awesome," one girl with chubby cheeks declared. Her face was flushed but she had a big smile. Another girl with stringy legs swung her arms wildly, trying to maintain her balance as the pace of the song quickened.

If the governor has his way, more physical education activities such as Earnheart's dance regimen could become an everyday occurrence at schools across Florida.

Like his more buff but less lean counterpart in California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charlie Crist wants all public schools to put more emphasis on exercise and healthy eating.

Crist has proposed spending $1.2-million next year to promote health and nutrition. State lawmakers have also proposed a bill requiring elementary schools to offer 30 minutes of physical instruction every day.

In Citrus County, elementary level educators said they are up for the challenge.

They acknowledge that the health of all children, particularly those who are overweight, would improve with more exercise. Moreover, they believe that letting kids spend more time on the playground, where they can pick up valuable skills, will improve their behavior and even their performance in the classroom.

The problem, they said, is not teachers who are holding children hostage to ensure higher passing rates in the high-stakes FCAT. Instead, they said, the problem is that there are too many children and not enough funds to hire more P.E. teachers.

"It comes down to dollars and cents," said Jonny Bishop, the district's coordinator of special programs and physical education. "Some schools only have one physical education teacher. I don't know how we can bring daily P.E. classes when there is only one P.E. teacher."

Citrus elementary schools share the same physical education curriculum standards, but each school handles formal physical education differently.

For example, Rock Crusher only has Earnheart and one other P.E. teacher to serve 728 students in grades preK to 5. Every student has 20 minutes of daily recess or, as the school prefers to call it, "physical activity time."

But that time is under the supervision of regular teachers, not certified physical education instructors.

Earnheart sees all the kids, but over a three-week period. That means one group will have 35 minutes of physical education for five straight days and return after two weeks. When not taking physical education, those students are completing other rotations, which include art, music and technology classes.

"It would be nice to have these kids every day," Earnheart said. "But it's hard to accommodate them all." Of the governor's plan to spend more on physical education, Earnheart said, "It's putting your money where your mouth is. I hope he does."

At Citrus Springs Elementary, Frank Vilardi has taught physical education for 15 years. He doesn't think kids are receiving fewer opportunities for physical activity now than when he began his career. But he said that he and his colleagues would like to see all children running laps, hitting the pavement and getting sweaty every day. At his school, one group of students will have his P.E. class for 40 minutes every day for a week, followed by a week with no P.E.

One idea that has been floated at Citrus Springs: Replace the 20 minutes of recess that all students receive with 30-minute classes taught by regular teachers who use lesson plans drafted by P.E. instructors.

Bishop said there are scheduling and staffing hurdles, but he would support daily P.E. classes.

"To some people, it might look like organized chaos," he said "(But) there's a lot of education that takes place on the playing field." He recalled his childhood days running on the field and learning about teamwork, cooperation and other problem-solving skills.

Asked if daily P.E. classes would rob students of necessary time to prepare for tests like the FCAT, Bishop said, "From my position, physical education is a plus all the way around."

Back at Rock Crusher, the third-graders in Earnheart's class talked about their favorite activity after being on the dance pad, running a mile and stretching their muscles using elastic bands.

The school's new $3,000 Dance Dance Revolution game kept coming up. Earnheart helped raise the money to buy the equipment.

"It's better than running," said third-grader Alexis Marie Shook, 9. "But you do get tired after a while."

Her classmate, Marc Hotelling, also 9, just wishes he had more time outdoors - no matter the activity. "I love P.E.," he said. "When I'm in class, I can't wait till P.E. starts."