March 3, 2013

Reading, playing and arithmetic: Schools use physical education to improve academics

By Susan McMillan
Staff Writer

It was a mad scramble on scooter carts to reach the play money scattered on the gymnasium floor.

click image to enlarge

Whitefield Elementary School students roll across the floor of the gym on carts Tuesday, after collecting paper money to practice counting during physical education class.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

click image to enlarge

Whitefield Elementary School Sullivan Anderson, Miranda Northrup, center, and Abby Peaslee count money they collected Tuesday during physical education class.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

Third-grade students at Whitefield Elementary elevated their heart rates by pushing themselves around the floor on the carts during a cops-and-robbers type game in physical education class. 

They also exercised their brains as they stacked the bills by denomination and counted by 10s, fives and ones.

Physical education teacher Jamie Simpson has introduced several mathematics-related activities to her classes this year, but she tries not to talk too much about the academic content with students.

“It’s supposed to be fun, and they don’t necessarily think that the learning part of school is fun,” she said. “I think a lot of times they don’t even understand that they’re learning while they’re here.”

To third-grader Griffen Bond, however, the math was part of the fun of the bank robbery game.

“It’s active, and we get to count,” he said. “It’s math and activity blended together.”

In an age of high-stakes standardized testing, some schools are trying to maximize academic instruction by incorporating mathematics and literacy skills into physical education. Keeping score and counting laps have always been part of P.E., but teachers such as Simpson and Scott Colby at Williams Elementary in Oakland are trying to go more in depth.

As part of a schoolwide focus on mathematics this year at Williams, the grades 3-5 school added extra P.E. periods on Thursdays and Fridays for classes that integrate both subjects.

“We call it ‘math movement,’ for lack of a better phrase, because that’s what we’re doing. We’re combining math skills and movement skills,” Colby said.

After three decades teaching P.E., Colby wasn’t sure how well it would work, but he said he’s seeing all kinds of benefits he didn’t expect, from the fun students are having to the things he’s learning about mathematics instruction.

“It’s been great for the collaboration within the building,” Colby said. “I very often don’t really know what they’re studying in math or reading, and they (other teachers) in turn don’t know about the skills I’m teaching in phys ed.”

Some of the new activities Colby has introduced this year add an extra wrinkle to counting. During indoor bowling, for example, he had students count their scores down from 150 instead of up from zero. Some teams knocked down enough pins that they got practice subtracting past zero and into negative numbers.

Other games are entirely new, such as asking students to solve a money problem — $1.50 minus 35 cents, for example — and then having them race around the gymnasium to collect and spell out the answer with ping-pong balls inscribed with numbers and symbols.

Colby said his students also learn vocabulary as he talks to them about sportsmanship and teamwork concepts, using words such as “compromise,” “comply” and “honesty.”

Simpson teaches kindergarten through eighth grade at Whitefield, so her mathematics-related activities vary widely. She recently taught first-graders to tally numbers and practice counting by fives, while middle-school-age students calculate their heart rates and their progress toward fitness goals.

Third-grade teacher Tracy Northrup said the games are a fun way for her students to reinforce skills they learned in earlier grades.

“This is a smart group,” she said, “so they like to be challenged, and they like that extra piece in the phys ed.”

The addition of mathematics to P.E. at Whitefield this year is part of the school’s participation in a federal Teacher Incentive Fund grant, which is supporting the development of a performance-based compensation system. 

Whitefield has schoolwide goals for student growth in mathematics and literacy, and the use of mathematics-based games is a way for a non-academic teacher such as Simpson to contribute.

Principal Josh McNaughton said the teachers in other non-academic subjects also have incorporated more mathematics and literacy into their classes this year. In music, for example, students might read short geography texts about the culture of origin for different instruments.

McNaughton said the integration of academic content into other subjects seems to be working well, and he’s waiting to see if results from winter assessments show an effect.

Both Colby and Simpson said it can be a challenge to incorporate mathematics practice without reducing the time that children are actually moving. They noted research showing that physical activity boosts academic performance.

“That’s paramount for me, that the children are active,” Colby said. “I continue to remind educators that we are in the midst of a national crisis with obesity.”

Simpson said the trend toward incorporating academics into P.E. could go too far, but she feels she’s balancing the two well.

“I don’t think it’s in the direction we’re supposed to be going for physical education,” she said, “but we’re at school, and we have these goals that we need to meet academically.”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645

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