Email Status

Volume 31, Number 1
January/February 2015

The "New PE" Aims to Build Bodies and Brains

Educators see multiple benefits from increasing opportunities to move


In the game Builders and Bulldozers students are assigned to either knock over or set upright colored plastic cones scattered like confetti across the hardwood floor. When PE teacher Jerry Curtiss says “Go!” and flips on music by country singer Kenny Chesney, the Fisher Elementary School gymnasium in Plymouth, Conn., becomes a whirl of racing fifth-graders.

After several minutes, Curtiss calls “Freeze!” and, without any counting of cones, students measure their heart rates for the third of four times during the 40-minute class. “Where are we?” he asks. He hears “170,” then “180.” “That’s a little high,” he offers. He then asks how they can tell they are working aerobically. “Because I am breathing and I can hardly stop,” Kaitlyn decides. Says Dylan, “You are breathing heavier and getting hotter and hotter.”

This, of course, is exactly the point of the “new PE,” which trades traditional sport-focused activities like dodgeball and basketball for activities that provide a heart-pumping workout. Instead of featuring games with winners and losers, and substantial downtime as students wait to participate, the new PE is focused on getting all students active (see sidebar, “Characteristics of the New PE”).

Where studies show most students in a typical PE class are active just 35 percent of the time, according to James Sallis, chief of behavioral medicine at the University of California, San Diego, who helped create the SPARK curriculum Curtiss uses, the new PE aims to engage students in moderate to vigorous exercise for at least half of the class.

The new PE also builds fitness knowledge (for example, how to check your heart rate) and instills lifelong habits, says Lisa Daly, who coordinates the federal physical education grant fueling Plymouth’s three-year-old effort. “We are teaching kids to take care of themselves beyond school.”

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


For Further Information

Carol M. White Physical Education Program:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Association Between School-Based Physical Activity, Including Physical Education, and Academic Performance. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2010. Available online at

J. Donnelly and K. Lambourne. “Classroom-Based Physical Activity, Cognition, and Academic Achievement.” Preventive Medicine 52 (2011): S36–S42. Available online at

J. Ratey. Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2013.