Let’s get back to this basic: daily, quality physical education!

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Educating the Body presents a history of physical education in Canada, shedding light on its major advocates, innovators, and institutions. Read the full blog post by the authors M. Ann Hall, Bruce Kidd, and Patricia Vertinsky, here:

The headlines about children’s health and academic achievement these days are grim. The Public Health Agency of Canada reports that during the last thirty years, obesity rates among Canadian children have nearly tripled. One in seven or 14% of Canadian children now suffer from the condition, significantly increasing health and mental health problems previously seen almost exclusively among adults, such as type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, depression, sleep apnea, and joint problems. The added concern is that childhood obesity is known to track into adulthood. To combat this, the Canadian Pediatric Society recently called for “risky” outside play.

There are parallel fears on the academic side. The Ontario Human Rights Commission recently reported that many schools fail to provide adequate, evidence-based opportunities to read. To address the deficit, the Ontario government has introduced a new “back to basics” curriculum for kindergarten, adding sit-down language instruction to what was previously an exclusively play-based approach.

What those headlines and responses ignore is that Canada already has an effective, time-tested approach to developing healthy physical, mental, and academic development during childhood – school-based physical education. As is well documented, physical education teaches and strengthens:

  • physical fitness and motor skills
  • self-esteem and confidence
  • social skills and cooperation with others
  • brain development and academic performance
  • personal responsibility for one’s own health and fitness

Physical education contributes to reduced stress and anxiety and improved heart health and disease prevention.

The problem is that in many parts of Canada, despite legislative requirements, physical education has become marginal, if taught at all, with a declining number of classes, outdoor education facilities being closed and sold off, and fewer qualified teachers in the classroom. Fewer physical educators are being trained in Canadian universities, as teacher preparation has been replaced by kinesiology, the study of human movement, with a view to preparing specialists for careers in exercise prescription and therapy. As one senior official told us, “the system is falling apart.”

The three of us have just finished a new history of physical education in Canada, Educating the Body, the first of its kind in more than fifty years. We all benefitted from our lessons in physical education and after-school sport (two of us in Ontario, the other in the UK) and have researched, written, and taught about it in three different research-intensive universities (Alberta, Toronto, and British Columbia.) We were led to write this book because of our fears that physical education is disappearing and needs to be revived.

What we found was both uplifting and discouraging. In some periods during its two hundred years of formal instruction, physical education has been highly valued as a strategy of nation-building and children’s health. During the 1920s and 1930s, it was the most frequently taught elementary subject, with more pupils receiving it across Canada than the traditional 3’R’s of reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic. To this day, it’s a “made in Canada” story of innovation and achievement. Moreover, up until recently, the after-school sport programs physical educators led provided the backbone of amateur sport in many communities, while physical educators contributed to the growth of other youth opportunities, including summer camps for girls and women.

On the other hand, many programs struggled to make their programs inclusive, especially for those of different backgrounds and abilities. While leaders called for the organization of classes on the basis of skill and experience, not grade level, so children of roughly the same physical literacy could learn together, very few schools ever accepted that approach. Moreover, with the hindsight of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we can say that the most serious failing was to not introduce, teach, and build upon the remarkable physical education and physical activities of the Indigenous Peoples, which early European explorers and traders called the very best in the world.

How do we effectively argue for revitalized and reformed physical education and school sport as a contribution to healthy growth and development and national well-being? It’s a complex task, because Canadian society faces so many different challenges today.  

To begin, it will take concerted, coordinated advocacy. One such opportunity will soon present itself: the commission of inquiry’s federal minister Carla Qualtrough has promised to map out a new future for sport and physical activity with a human rights lens.

Canada is a signatory to the various United Nations agreements that promise quality physical education as a basic human right (e.g. International Charter of Physical Education, Physical Activity and Sport | UNESCO) and in the past, the federal government has invested significantly in physical education as a contribution to national health.

It’s time that we revive and update those traditions.

Read an excerpt of Educating the Body, here.


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