A League of Fans Special Feature
Brenda VanLengen is Vice Chair of PE4life, a non-profit whose mission is to increase the amount of quality physical education in schools across the nation. From 2001-2010, VanLengen served as second in command for PE4life, including in her role as Chief Design Officer. In addition to her duties with PE4life, VanLengen is also a well-traveled sports broadcaster and co-hosts a national talk show on women’s sports.
Ken Reed, League of Fans’ sports policy director, recently interviewed Van Lengen.
Ken Reed: Why was PE4life started?
Brenda VanLengen: Jim Baugh, the president and CEO of Wilson Sporting Goods at the time, spearheaded the development of PE4life. He had discovered that the number of kids participating in sports was dropping, and physical education programs in schools were being cut. He knew the importance of quality daily PE classes for the overall wellbeing of children and wanted to start a grassroots initiative to get quality daily physical education in all of our schools. In working with the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, Baugh formed PE4life in 2000.
Reed: Why are you so passionate about getting quality fitness-based PE in every school?
VanLengen: Today’s kids have a shorter life expectancy than their parents due to sedentary lifestyles. We have to get our kids developing healthy active habits for a lifetime. If each school would incorporate quality fitness-based PE programs – ideally daily, but at least three days a week – we would have healthier kids, academic performance would go up, and behavioral problems would drop. The research has consistently proven this.
Reed: Kids sitting at desks all day, listening to an adult lecture to them, is probably the worst way to educate young people. How do you think we can change the typical school culture on a national basis?
VanLengen: Schools need to incorporate the physical education professional in academic planning sessions. We have too many school administrators who still look at PE teachers as nothing more than coaches or jocks and don’t equate them with the academic side. Schools that incorporate physical education professionals on the academic side and allow them to help the entire school implement “brain breaks” and other physical fitness activities throughout the day — in addition to a strong physical education program – will have students that are more ready to learn. When children are physically active they simply are more ready to learn in the classroom.
The PE professional has much to contribute to the physical, academic and behavioral health within the school. PE professionals know how to get kids physically active in a safe way.
Once school administrators, superintendents, and school board members start valuing physical education and physical activity as learning readiness tools our school cultures will change in a positive way.
Reed: It’s mind-boggling that at a time when overweight and obesity levels are up among young people in most communities, and physical activity levels are down, our schools continue to cut physical education classes, recess time, and intramural sports programs. Do you think the No Child Left Behind legislation and the focus on standardized test scores is the primary reason?
VanLengen: Overall, I don’t think there’s any doubt that schools are feeling pressure from No Child Left Behind and standardized tests. In response, they are doing things like dropping PE classes in order to create more time in the classroom. Instead, they should be getting kids more ready to learn through more quality physical education and physical activity during the school day. Based on the research, their current approach is misguided.
Reed: Technology (computers, video games, smart phones, etc.) has had the unwelcome side effect of making our children less physically active than at any other time in our history. When you add in parental safety concerns about kids walking or biking to school, and schools dropping PE classes, recess, and intramural sports options, you’re left with a situation that some have described as a physical inactivity epidemic. Do you believe we’re at a crisis stage?
VanLengen: As a nation, we’re definitely in a crisis stage. Our lifestyles, including those of our children, are more sedentary today because of all the conveniences we have. It’s a critical situation because of all the health problems this young generation will face if things don’t change.
With the drop in physical education classes around the country today, fewer young children are being exposed to what an active lifestyle is. Think about the challenge today’s young people might face when they turn 35 and their doctors tell them they need to get active … Without an active PE or sports background, and knowledge of the value of being physically active – which you get in PE classes, it will be tough for them to change from their sedentary lifestyles.
Getting quality physical education programs in our schools is extremely important due to the health problems this generation is staring at.
Reed: Tell me about PE4life’s impact on this issue …
VanLengen: We’ve had success working both from the top down and the bottom up. Due to our efforts in Washington D.C., we were the driving force behind the federal PEP grant program which helps fund recipients’ PE programs across the nation. We also have developed PE4life implementation workshops that help teachers, administrators, school board members, and others from the local community, put high quality PE4life programs in place, while making the needed cultural changes to sustain success.
We also help educators make technology part of the solution instead of part of the problem. We help PE teachers incorporate technology like heart rate monitors and exergaming equipment in their programs. When you incorporate things like heart rate monitors and exergaming, and you personalize fitness programs for students, PE becomes something all kids can relate to, not just the athletically-inclined.
Reed: What do you think about PE and intramural sports programs being cut while schools continue to fund varsity athletics programs that only serve a relatively small portion of the student body?
VanLengen: One of PE4life’s core principles is that PE programs offer a variety of fitness, sport, leisure, and adventure activities to all students. This is critical in order to introduce all students – not just the athletically-inclined – to the concepts and benefits of physical activity. Exposing students to a variety of activities increases the chances that they will find an activity that appeals to them, and that they will engage in for lifelong fitness. Cutting PE to fund varsity athletics programs for the athletically-inclined would be akin to only providing core academic courses (mathematics, science, etc.) to the intellectually-gifted.
Reed: Do you think we need federal legislation requiring daily fitness-based PE in all public schools, K-12? If so, do you think federal legislation is feasible?
VanLengen: Federal legislation may be helpful, but it won’t be seen as effective without accompanying authority, funding, and support. Many states already have legislation regarding PE, but don’t provide the supportive environment that is critically needed in order for that legislation to have an impact. There are a few key issues we’re facing in the legislation area, primarily at the state level. For example:
1) States present PE legislation as guidelines or standards rather than requirements.
2) States don’t allocate funding to support the legislation.
3) States have only minimal PE requirements, especially at the secondary level (e.g., one PE credit over four years of high school).
4) States allow waivers that excuse students from PE, such as for extracurricular activities (band, ROTC, etc.), participation on athletic teams, or merely by a parent signing a document stating that they will ensure that the student gets adequate physical activity outside of school. None of these replace the knowledge and influence that a comprehensive, fitness-based PE program can provide.
5) Schools are allowed to bump PE whenever time is needed for other activities, without requiring that the time be made up.
Reed: What’s the vision moving forward for PE4life?
VanLengen: In concert with other organizations having complementary missions, we see PE4life continuing the fight for saving and enhancing physical education in the United States, and we advocate for states, school districts, and communities to provide the legislation, funding, and support to achieve this mission.
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League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
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