Next month, it’s time for bobsledding at Trinity School in Ellicott City. And cross-country skiing and speedskating and curling.
They’re not what you might expect to find in a school gym, but physical education teacher Frank John created a three-week “Winter Olympics”-themed unit that engages students and builds their interest in fitness.
“It’s something they’re not used to doing,” John says. “And this gives some kids an opportunity who might not excel at other sports.”
Like John, teachers across Howard County are getting creative when it comes to physical education. Though many schools still offer traditional units like basketball and soccer, more are incorporating activities like golf, bicycling and even obstacle courses into their classes.
“We have to make things exciting for them,” says Randy Wallenhorst, physical education teacher at Pointers Run Elementary School in Clarksville. “We’re not Disney World. We have to try to snag them somehow, some way, with different things.”
Along with new skills, teachers say benefits of these innovative units include increased confidence, improved fitness and a foundation for lifelong health.
Here’s how four area schools are changing their physical education game plans.
Winter Olympics, Trinity School
Representing countries like the U.S., Australia, Jamaica and even Kazakhstan, third- through eighth-graders at Trinity School kick off their Olympic unit each year with a flameless torch relay.
Then the events begin.
Inside the gymnasium, students participate in timed and untimed challenges using modified equipment. For “speedskating,” students tie scrimmage vests over their shoes, making it easier for them to slide around the gym.
During “bobsledding,” one of the most popular events, students sit on three plastic scooters tied together and use their legs to navigate a curvy, cone-marked course. While third- and fourth-grade students sled solo, fifth- through eighth-graders are two to a “sled,” adding the challenge of teamwork.
The same is true for the cross-country skiing, where three to four students stand on 8-foot-long wooden boards with waist-level bungee cords attached. They must hold the cords and work together to move the “skis” forward, John says.
“The little guys go about 40 feet,” he says. “The older ones go up and back again … about 140 feet.”
And just like the actual Olympics, winners in each event get “medals.” Gold is a Rolo candy wrapped in gold foil, while silver is a Hershey Kiss and bronze is a Tootsie Roll.
Students say the unit is one of their favorites.
“It’s not a sport you see in schools,” says Daniel Furnary, a seventh-grader. “It’s fun to try a new sport you don’t see every day.”
‘Ninja Warrior,’ Lime Kiln Middle School
After watching the hit television show “American Ninja Warrior” during the summer of 2014, P.E. teachers Erika Swan and Phil Ranker had a revelation: The show’s obstacle course-style format is ideal for middle schoolers.
So they got to work, designing stations with a range of challenges similar to those on the show.
Challenges like the “Bounce Around,” where students jump between Bosu balls without touching the ground; the “Cliff Hanger,” where students travel the width of a wooden frame using only their hands; and the “Peg Punisher,” where students use two wooden pegs to travel up, down and across a pegboard without their feet and legs touching the wall.
Stations were designed to improve students’ muscular strength, endurance and agility, as well as to teach them the importance of perseverance, Swan says.
“Ninja Warrior is based off the idea of getting better when competing against yourself,” she says. “So literally, every person can be successful in the unit if they work hard and try.”
The school launched its weeklong unit in November 2014. Students immediately connected to it, Swan says.
“We got a ton of positive feedback,” she says. “… the expression on their faces is absolutely priceless.”
Whether they’d seen the show or not, students were so eager to try the challenges that this June the school held its own “Ninja Warrior”-style competition.
Students from sixth through eighth grade volunteered to participate in the 10-station competition. Teachers crowned boy and girl winners from each grade based on times and course progress.
Carrie Lubis, 13, says she enjoyed the unit because “you don’t have to keep doing the same thing over and over like with hockey and football.” Still, she was hesitant to take part in the competition.
“I’m not big on getting up in front of people and doing something,” the Fulton teenager says.
After some encouragement from Ranker, Carrie decided to give it a try. Looking back, she says she’s glad she did. Carrie had the fastest time and completed the most obstacles of all the seventh-grade girls, an achievement now preserved on the gym’s “Ninja Mural” wall.
“It really boosted my confidence with trying new things in [physical education],” she says. “A lot of kids who didn’t want to do it got up and tried. Even though they may have messed up, they still had a lot of fun doing it.”
Bicycling, Swansfield Elementary School
“Think of me as the students’ first driver’s education teacher,” jokes Kathy Eckley, P.E. teacher at Swansfield Elementary School in Columbia, as she describes the school’s three-week bicycling unit.
Eckley helped launch the unit 11 years ago, teaching students how to ride in a straight line, mount and dismount a bicycle, use arm signals, avoid hazards and yield to oncoming cars, bicyclists and pedestrians.
Over the years, the unit has evolved to include 15 school-owned bicycles, 75 school-owned helmets (some bought through a grant from the Bright Minds Foundation), 10 community-donated bicycles and a fleet of 25 bikes owned by the school system and shared by several county schools.
Students from kindergarten through fifth grade participate in the unit, which groups students based on experience level, Eckley says.
During each 45-minute class, students ride inside the gym or outside on the grass and paved lot. But for some, that’s not enough. Almost every day during the unit, students ask Eckley if they can ride during recess. Eckley happily obliges.
“It’s a sense of freedom and speed,” she says. “We have good participation in most of our units, but we definitely hear more students express their enjoyment of the activity than during other, more traditional activities,” Eckley says.
Sophie Sapp, a Swansfield fifth-grader, says the bicycling unit is one of her favorites.
“It’s good exercise, and it’s faster than walking,” she says. “And it’s just fun to do.”
The unit also “levels the playing field” for students, giving every child a chance to learn bicycling, regardless of whether they have a bike at home.
Golf, Pointers Run Elementary School
Using colorful clubs, balls and Velcro targets as bull’s-eyes, second- through fifth-graders at Pointers Run Elementary School in Clarksville learn everything from putting to chipping during the school’s two-week golf unit.
The unit, which takes place outside each September, is sponsored by The First Tee of Howard County — a foundation that helps local kids experience the game — through a grant from the Horizon Foundation.
“Since this is an independent activity, students love to challenge themselves,” says P.E. teacher Katarzyna Brodka. “We don’t make it competitive. We just want to develop love for the sport and introduce an activity students can perform with their families for a lifetime.”
Students also learn pitching, which includes proper grip and swing motion, and “core values” such as honesty, safety, respect and perseverance, Wallenhorst says.
Launched in 2012, the unit gives less athletic students, as well as those who don’t participate in team sports, a chance to shine, he says. “It’s amazing to see kids come out of their shell.”
Wallenhorst recalls a fourth-grader who seemed uninterested in P.E. class. But once the unit began, the teachers learned he regularly played rounds of 18-hole golf.
“It was good for him because, for those two weeks, we could use him as a demonstrator,” Wallenhorst says.
Brodka recalls another student, who had never played golf before and spoke English as a second language. During the golf unit, she says, he excelled.
“When you don’t know the language, one way you can shine is through movement,” she says.