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~'The Child's World Is a World of Play'

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Shaker Heights, Ohio--To the beat of a slow tattoo on their teacher's tambourine, a group of 6-year-olds moves about the gymnasium floor, each in a private dance. Some move jerkily, in the manner of TV robots, some fluidly, eyes closed, to an imaginary ballet.

As the beat speeds up and a countdown starts, their movements grow more frenzied as they scramble to find their original places. On the final beat, they collapse to the floor, breathing hard.

"Acceleration" and "deceleration" may seem words better suited to a vocabulary lesson for junior-high students studying Latin roots, but Marion A. Sanborn's young charges at Onaway School here know, and experience on a regular basis, what they mean.

Teaching children the meaning of such concepts is a fundamental principle of this suburban Cleveland school district's physical-education program for elementary-school pupils--a curriculum that is considered exemplary by many national experts.

Developing Coordination

Jump ropes have survived, as have spongy, high-bouncing red balls, but little else resembles the elementary pe class of 20 years ago. Jumping jacks are out, as is stress on competition. The emphasis is on developing young children's eye-hand coordination, balance, lateral movement, strength, and flexibility--skills that may later be applied to the wide variety of games and sports to which the district's students are exposed in high school.

Just as important, say teachers and supervisors, is the "affective" side of physical education--teaching children to cooperate, to develop self-confidence, and to overcome fear of physical challenges. "We deal in courage," Ms. Sanborn is fond of saying.

A key difference between this "skill-based" approach and more traditional physical education is that it teaches, at an early age, skills and techniques that are common to many games and sports, rather than trying to teach one sport at a time. Only later, in 4th grade or even junior high, are these skills grouped and applied to a conventional game.

For example, the Shaker Heights curriculum includes several sequences that can later be applied, selectively, to softball, basketball, or volleyball.

In kindergarten and the primary grades, children work on tossing balls accurately, chasing and evading, and tracking moving objects such as floating balloons. Simple games, such as tag and "mirror," which later will translate into offensive and defensive movement, are used sparingly to apply and reinforce such skills. By the 3rd grade, pupils have learned more complex sequences, such as dribbling a playground ball and shooting it toward the basket. Likewise, pupils gradually work their way up from simple balancing exercises to more complex activities, such as jumping rope on a balance beam.

Lucille M. Burkett, the district's director of health and physical education, believes that trying to teach complex games in the early grades, although common, is frustrating to everyone involved--and results in what she calls "drop-outs from movement," or children who become physically passive because they cannot yet compete. "Softball, for young children, is a game between the pitcher--and that's usually the teacher--and the catcher," she says.

"We don't play games that eliminate children; dodgeball is the classic example. We simply don't throw objects at children. It's very difficult because the adult world does that, and encourages it, and children know it. But the child who doesn't like to be thrown at, or who can't dodge, gets out of this Mickey Mouse right away. And then he or she sits for the rest of the period."

Ms. Sanborn confirms that children pick up cues from the adult world that make it difficult to keep pupils interested in learning skills sequentially. "On TV, what they see in terms of sport is very high-skill, and the behavior when points are scored ... well, there's no humility. Therefore, kids think that when they score a goal, it's the World Series."

Yet, she finds, most children respond to such challenges as shinnying up ropes and catching tennis balls ejected by a machine. For older elementary-school pupils, Ms. Sanborn organizes the gym into "stations''--balance beams in one area, climbing cages in another--and rotates small groups through them. The frequent switching wards off boredom and ensures that every student tries several tasks during a given gym period. All, she says, can do well at at least one.

If some traditionalists think the classes appear chaotic, Ms. Burkett says, they're wrong. "There is a lot going on there," she says, "but it all has a purpose. More kids are moving.

"They're not standing in line waiting to shoot a basketball, which has nothing to do with the game of basketball. It doesn't take a lot of smarts to figure that out."

"We tend to teach as we were taught," Ms. Burkett says. "It has nothing to do with the reality of children."

The "reality of children," she believes, is that their world is a world of play. Children who, for lack of opportunity or training, miss out on it will very likely have social and academic difficulties as well, she says.

"Everyone needs to belong. ... Little kids who drop out from moving with their age-mates are isolated from the child's world," she says. "If their parents want them to be violinists or whatever, that's great, but don't cut them off from other children."

Several years' experience with the new curriculum and an experimental project at Onaway have supported the theory that physical agility and academic attainment are related.

Diagnosing Difficulties

The three-year-old experiment, called Intensive Physical Education for Primary Students, consists of a sophisticated system for diagnosing pupils' difficulties and providing an extra weekly class for those who are behind. The adults call it "motor lab"; pupils refer to it as "extra gym" and consider it a privilege rather than a stigma.

"This is one of those rare searches for new knowledge that a public school has encouraged," says Ms. Sanborn, the physical-education teacher. She has found that students in "extra gym" are progressing more rapidly than their more-proficient classmates on a battery of about 20 rated skills. "Without the intervention," she says, "that gap would ordinarily widen."

Classroom teachers, too, report improvement in the "extra gym" pupils. Pam Fullerton, a 3rd-grade teacher, says, "In the 3rd grade, they start getting into peer pressure, and sports become important. This has helped so much; they're a lot more cooperative and better socially."

Ms. Burkett says the project has accumulated enough data over time on the physical and academic progress of pupils to suggest a strong relationship between "the ability to master complex physical tasks, like moving from a standing position into a roll and back to a stand, and accomplishment in reading. We've found enough to keep looking."

In "extra gym," as well as throughout the school district's elementary program, she says, "The point is not to get to the top or to beat someone else. The emphasis is not on my beating you. The emphasis is on doing better than I did before."

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