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September 2014 • Online Edition
 

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Schools Embrace PE/Play; The Results Are Astounding | Print |  E-mail

by Jamie Siebrase

Some schools, we’ve seen (Profile, May 2014), skimp on recess and physical education.

 

But according to author and educator, David Sobel, “The efforts to force reading lessons and high-stakes testing on ever younger children could actually hamper them later in life by depriving them of a chance to learn through play.” Sobel, writing for YES! Magazine, contemplates “forest kindergarten” – a tiny, Portlandia-sounding movement back to the original notion of what kindergarten should be: A place where five- and six-year-olds spend their mornings (rain, sleet, or shine!) in, quite literally, a forest.

We might not have this in Denver (yet), but, standardized-tests-be-damned, these five schools refuse to nix movement-based exploration, making it their mission to make learning fun. ACADEMY 360, 12505 Elmendorf Pl., academy-360.org, 303-574-1360, Denver’s latest expeditionary school, came to the scene in 2013 when executive director Sally Sorte, in partnership with the Colorado Health Foundation, sought to provide a whole-child alternative for low-income students.

Currently enrolling for kindergarten through third grade, the school emphasizes physical education (daily gym’s nonnegotiable) along with healthy eating, emotional wellbeing, and lots of movement. “We start each day with 15 minutes of morning movement that incorporates tai chi, yoga, and zumba,” says Sorte. “We all participate together, then students eat a healthy breakfast.” After having these needs met, children are ready to learn. They enjoy daily recess, and, says Sorte, there’s an expectation for teachers to incorporate movement in the classroom.

Rocky Mountain School of Exped-itionary Learning (RMSEL), 1700 S. Holly St., 303-759-2076, rmsel.org, a K-12 public school of choice and partnership of five Denver-area school districts – Aurora, Cherry Creek, Denver, Douglas County, and Littleton – is its own district, says athletic director J.H. Sava; like other state schools, RMSEL participates in annual standardized testing. “The difference is in how we approach daily activities,” says Sava.

Students don’t merely sit in classrooms receiving information by lecture. Starting in second grade, continuing through middle school, classrooms are multi-age, and these “crews” take off-campus expeditions at least once a week and also go into the wilderness three times each year. “Right now,” says Sava, “We have fourth graders out in Pueblo for a weeklong canoe trip and the fifth graders are on a sailing trip off of Catalina Island where they are learning what it means to be part of a team.” The school’s juniors just returned from Costa Rica; for kindergarteners, a wilderness adventure might be a three-day-long car camping trip.

Sava, also the school’s health and fitness instructor, works with crews in 49-minute-long sessions, either once or twice per week, rotating by week. The fitness classroom, as Sava calls it, “is very much a thinking classroom as well.” Middle schoolers, for example, spent the year gathering data about themselves, wearing heart rate monitors, timing runs, etc. – a project culminating with written reflections. “It is not a ton of time I have them in fitness directly,” Sava admits. “But,” he says, “they also have two 25-minute recesses daily and plenty of time outside the classroom.” Notably, high school students take four full years of fitness instruction.

At Denver Green School, 6700 E. Virginia Ave., 720-424-7480, denvergreenschool.org, students get a “hands-on, brains-on experience,” says PE teacher Greg Parker. The publicly-funded DPS “innovation school” was approved by the Board of Education to implement a  unique program where core subjects are taught using a project-based approach. Innovation status lets teachers, to some extent, use their own curriculum and opt out of certain evaluations. “We are somewhere between public and charter,” Parker clarifies.

He doesn’t believe physical education and academics are mutually exclusive. For children who struggle with reading, for example, teaching them to skip during gym – a movement connecting the left and right sides of the brain – often helps. With electives, including PE, DGS works in six-week-long cycles. During a PE cycle, students have 45 minutes of gym every day. This, Parker says, leaves the annual PE average at 15 minutes per day, “which is not as much as we hoped for, but is better than some schools.”

Here’s the thing: even when DGS students aren’t in gym, they’re still moving. There’s morning movement, which happens in every classroom every day for 30 minutes. Students also have 45 minutes of recess daily and enjoy regular field trips via an excursion program – for elementary  students, it’s about five per year; older kids usually do eight or 10, though last year’s sixth grade class took 25 (!!!) field trips. “If students are studying biology, they might go to Rocky Mountain Arsenal and hike while exploring plant species,” Parker says. Last year one class did a lighting audit at George Washington High School, counting lights, calculating hours and electricity used to determine how much money could be saved using less light. Another class studying force and motion took a sledding field trip to learn about acceleration. It doesn’t get much cooler than that. 

The Girls Athletic Leadership School (GALS), 750 Galapago St., 303-282-6437, galschools.org, provides 6th-9th grade girls access to personalized, holistic education. “We, as much as possible, try to teach content through movement,” explains co-founder and student life director Nina Safane, telling me about the school’s “very famous fraction dance” and a scramble game for learning about imperialism. “We think you gain a ton of instructional time by giving the brain and body a break,” says Safane. Four mornings per week, school opens with 40 minutes of vigorous movement – everything from running and circuit training to yoga. Seventy-minute-long academic blocks are always broken up with movement breaks, and daily lunch recess is vital. “In addition to physical activity, we also look at nutrition, and support the girls socially and emotionally too,” Safane says.

Movement is inherent in ‘most everything children do at Denver Waldorf School, 940 Fillmore St., denverwaldorf.org, 303-777-0531, a private school founded on the philosophies of Austrian philosopher and social reformer Rudolf Steiner. “Everybody talks about the five senses,” says class teacher Todd Matuszewicz. “But at Waldorf, we talk about other senses too, like the sense of wellbeing and the sense of movement.” ECE and kindergarten teachers spend much of their time developing in the children cross-body connections that will set a foundation for exceptional learning. Waldorf teachers view daily recesses as opportunities for integrating in-class learning with the real world.

“It is one thing to read a book, and it is another thing to experience the world,” Matuszewicz says. Younger pupils go on daily nature walks. “Part of that,” explains Matuszewicz, “is that you get to move before you sit. But,” he continues, “As you walk you explore different elements of nature, and so you have a more holistic relationship with the surrounding world.” For older students, there’s “this big dirty bowl. It doesn’t look that impressive,” Matuszewicz says, “But it’s really exciting.” Last fall, for example, after a particularly torrential rain left 16 inches of water in the bowl, students experimented with floating logs, building bridges, getting their boots stuck. In the winter when it snows, the space transforms into sledding hills. “Now,” Matuszewicz says, “It is really dry, so somebody brought in big hay bales.”

The tangible benefits of physical education and movement are documented. Safane, though, defines success not just by the numbers (hers are high), but also by intangibles like happiness, an outcome that doesn’t always come across on a scorecard. Here’s to the fearless local schools that are paving the way for a healthy new era of education.

 
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