Exercising our kids’ bodies and minds: An unexpected story of how turned PE dread around as a parent

This post is in partnership with  Voices for Healthy Kids, a joint initiative of the American Heart Association and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, #ProtectPE campaign. All opinions and confessions of athletic-lack are my own.

My most glorious moment in gym came in fourth grade, when I petitioned to have a new pair of sassy red canvas sandals with rubber soles approved to wear in class. I still had to gut it out during classic PE horrors of dodgeball, pull-ups, and praying to Baby Jesus that I’d get walked to first base in softball instead of having to swing the bat.

I was not an athlete. Clearly. I swam competitively, and still, my dad lovingly teased me that my style was “slow but pretty.” Perfect stroke, zero inclination to race.

While I was so much happier drawing and writing stories and singing than making a team or finding a sport, I was still an active kid. I was the only girl on my block, and the first among all those boys to ride a two-wheeler. And with those kids, I spent weekends and vacations running from house to house, blissfully jumping into plastic pools and ice-skating at the park across the street until my toes were numb.

But those were different days. And now that I am a parent in a time when neighborhood kids barely know each other let alone rule the alleys and gangways, I also have very different children.


My kids are natural athletes and need to burn energy every day to keep them happy, calm and focused.

I am committed to after-school energy-burning and all the wonderful brain and body benefits of kicking, running, dancing and (even) competing. Research tells us that kids need 60 minutes of physical activity a day, and that the impact extends to their emotional and mental well-being as well as their beating hearts and growing bones. I am down with providing that far more than I ever thought I’d be as a nervous girl climbing a splintery rope toward the gym ceiling.

Last month, my son earned his black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and on the heels of that tremendous accomplishment, he begged to add soccer to the roster and my toddler chimed in that she wants to be a ballerina TOMORROW.

I can’t do it all. No matter how hard I try to add in activities and take opportunities to run over to the playground or hit the trampoline park, the number of minutes my kids are active at school counts just as much (or more) to their daily energy-burn. And I’m not alone -- 95% of parents of kids under age 18 agree that PE needs to be a part of K-12 curriculum. Sadly, public schools are at an incredible deficit of dollars to pay for the physical education our kids need. And we feel that deeply in my son’s school -- and later, right at home.

You know what I mean. The way your kid comes bounding home from school on days when they’ve had recess and gym class and maybe even some time to run after the last bell rings versus the way your kid bounces off every wall in your home when they’ve been stuck in indoor recess and it is not a gym day and the weather has stopped any outside time dead in its tracks? BANANAS. In my best mothering moments, I’ve led the kids in living room dance parties, bike riding in our hallway, balloon volleyball, bed bouncing, ANYTHING to hamster-wheel them to sanity and sleepy time. (I should really earn extra FitBit steps for this creativity.) But on my own stressed out, exhausted, need-exercise days, all I am thinking of is getting dinner in their mouths, homework checked off and tiny heinies in bed -- not about how to be happily active for a full hour.

I KNOW YOU FEEL ME ON THIS. Thankfully, a few years ago, our school system mandated more PE time for each student (and the parents said AMEN). Sadly, that mandate was rolled in with big budget cuts (because, of course). And then, miraculously, our fine arts magnet school’s principal had a burst of creative thinking and chose to add the time by bringing on a dance teacher to align with the already amazing arts curriculum and give kids a different way to express their activity (BRILLIANT, right?). Since then, my athletic kid has taken (and loved) hip-hop and jazz dancing, partnered with other students in dance crews and had solo appearances on stage incorporating his martial arts moves. The best part is that everyone dances -- even the principal during the last few (necessary) fundraising galas to budge parents to put more money toward this great program.

I would have flipped (maybe even literally) to take dance in grammar school. Right there, in my red gym-approved sandals and despite dodgeball, I would have been the happiest non-athletic kid ever.

We have all of these issues -- our kids’ need to not just burn energy, but to find and love activity that keeps their bodies and brains moving, on top of nationwide public school budget cuts and complicated classroom logistics, added in with deep need for parents, educators and great organizations to work together to ensure our kids are healthier from classroom to playground to living room.  What do we do to put PE at the top of the priority list for our schools, and at the center of conversations about how to serve our kids well? We know activity and academics are strongly linked, so how to do we underscore that at school and home?

I believe one critical way is supporting Voices for Healthy Kids, a very cool initiative that aims to foster a national conversation about the need to ensure quality physical education as a part of every child’s education.  Not only is Voices for Healthy Kids reminding us that PE serves the whole child, they are helping us put our attention and activism where our beliefs are.

Our school, despite dwindling resources and its own set of public school issues, is privileged to have dance. But what about other schools with few parent donations and access to creative options for physical education? A startling 4% of elementary schools, 8% of middle schools, and 2% of high schools provide daily PE or its equivalent for the entire school year, despite nearly all parents believing it should be a part of the curriculum. Factoring in racial inequalities and socio-economic challenges shows an even bleaker playing ground, with many schools zeroed out on resources for PE. I think we all agree no kid should miss out on the benefits of PE because of where they live.

Concerning ourselves with our kids’ well-being is what we do every day. And now it is time to ring the bell to help children across the country get the activity they need to fuel healthier bodies, brains and spirits. We can do this. For the love of hip-hop dance, floor hockey and even calisthenics, we can do this together. (These success stories are proof.)

First, become a part of the PE Action Team to make sure your kids and local schools are getting enough physical activity. Click here to check it out.

Next, learn how to boost the number of PE minutes offered in your community here.

Skip, run, grand jeté, briskly walk in your gym-class approved sassy sandals — just go — to ensure that your kids, and mine and another parent’s all get the full education they deserve, with plenty of PE included.