With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:
John Bartholomew is the director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Exercise and Sport Psychology Lab and a professor and chair of the school’s kinesiology and health education department. His research focuses on physical activity in schools, among other topics.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Edu: Could you speak broadly about your recent research?
John Bartholomew: We have been really interested in the promotion of physical activity in elementary schools and trying to increase opportunities for activity in schools. The challenge that we have is that teachers are already burdened with a lot of different requirements that they have to meet in their classrooms.
How do we, then, find a way to increase physical activity in those schools without adding to the burden of teachers, and without reducing time for academic pursuits? Because that’s very much where we get pushback, certainly from administrators, if not from teachers, is concerns about that balance and how do they continue to achieve their academic goals while still increasing opportunities for physical activity.
What we’ve come up with is focused on active learning. The idea behind this is creating lessons that are 10 to 15 minutes in length where teachers can teach academic subjects or review academic material while the children are active. A lot of these are as simple as old physical education games.
Freeze tag is a really popular one, where the kids will go out, there will be kids who are taggers, and kids that are running around. When they’re tagged they’re frozen, they raise their hand, and then other children will come up with a question the teacher has prepared on an index card. It could be a spelling word, it could be state capitals.
If they get it correct, then they’re released and they get to run around again. If not, they have to wait for another child to come up and ask them a question until they get it correct to be released. We get very nice increases in physical activity with this while at the same time they’re reviewing or teaching new information.
Trib+Edu: In Texas, how active is the average student’s day?
Bartholomew: If you think about the elementary schools that we work with, which are sort of the districts that are outlying around Austin, in the majority of those, what we’ll see is that they’ll have two 50-minute P.E. periods a week, as well as one 25-minute P.E. period a week, where that is then shared with another one, half that and half music. Then they’ll have 20 minutes of recess five days a week. Those are generally the limit of the opportunities that are provided to most of the students for engagement for physical activity.
Some districts are different; Austin ISD requires brain breaks that they do for students, where they’ll do 10 minutes of physical activity, which sort of builds on this same idea. But for the majority of them, it’s far reduced from what most people experienced when we were kids.
Trib+Edu: Could you speak to why there’s less time set aside for that compared to some years ago?
Bartholomew: Administrators face real challenges in thinking about how to balance the host of goals that we have for teachers to accomplish in elementary school. We want kids to have time for music, we want kids to have time in art, we want them to have time in physical education. And at the same time we have this expanded list of information that we want to get across from the straight academic materials.
There’s some data that the emphasis on standardized testing has caused a number of districts to shift their policies, either — and this is more of a nationwide effect than specific to Texas — to reduce time spent in recess and time in P.E. to better accommodate those other requirements and the things they’re trying to fit in the day.
Our goal was, rather than try to fight that battle directly in terms of trying to expand the amount of time in P.E. and recess and what have you, to instead think about, how do we help teachers to do their job better while getting physical activity in at the same time?