Skip Navigation
School of Education at Johns Hopkins University-Childhood Obesity

School of Education at Johns Hopkins University - Graduate Education Programs:

Print this page Print Version

Childhood Obesity

by Stu Ryan

Childhood obesity in the United States has risen dramatically. According to the National Institutes of Health (2002), the number of children who are overweight has doubled in the last two to three decades and currently one child in five is overweight. In an effort to slow this trend, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that schools require daily physical education in grades K-12 (US Department of Health and Human Services, 1996). However, increasing the amount of physical education may not be as important as focusing on the quality.

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) believes quality physical education programs should provide learning experiences that meet the developmental needs of youngsters; and help improve a child's mental alertness, academic performance, readiness to learn and enthusiasm for learning (NASPE, 1995). Following the same beliefs, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) developed a document that defined instructional practices that are both appropriate and inappropriate for children. Further, the Executive Committee of the Council on Physical Education for Children (COPEC) used the NAEYC document to create a position statement on developmentally and instructionally appropriate practices in physical education (COPEC, 1992).

Sometimes hearing stories from young people about their physical education experiences help clarify just why such developmentally and instructionally appropriate practices are so critical. Attitudinal research has produced many articles that express the feelings of students towards physical education (Carlson, 1995; Ratliffe, Imwold, & Conkell, 1994; Ryan, Fleming, & Maina, 2003). However, the attitudes of adults reflecting on their childhood days participating in physical education can help to further understand both "good" and "bad" practices.

Over the past six years, I have taught university level classes to college students who want to become elementary teachers. About half of these classes were taught to elementary physical education majors while the other half were traditional elementary majors who were required to take a class in "Teaching Elementary Health and Physical Education." Most of the physical education majors were former athletes, while the elementary majors were not. The medium age of the students at this university is 29 years of age-- not the typical age of college students.

While teaching these classes, I stumbled upon informal data that has offered evidence of how important developmentally appropriate physical education can be, and, conversely, how detrimental and possibly life changing inappropriate physical education can be. As a university professor who tries to bring the "real world" into the classroom, I often discuss with student's my own positive and negative physical education experiences, both as a student and as a former K-12 teacher. One of the most beneficial parts of the class, however, is hearing college students share stories of their past physical education experiences.

On the first day of class, I conduct an activity designed to recreate the student's experiences in physical education. The activity begins with the student being asked to reflect on their elementary physical education experiences and try to recall the types of games, skills, and activities they participated in. Each student lists at least three of these past activities. I collect the writings and quickly analyze them for trends. Over the years, I have seen about every game, skill, and activity known to mankind. Nevertheless, for every class over the past six years, certain games have dominated the list. It should be no surprise that dodgeball and kickball top my students' lists, and it is a common activity on many playgrounds and gyms (Ross, et. al., 1987).

After I share the results of my informal survey with the students, I tell them that they will have the pleasure of participating in dodgeball, kickball, and maybe one or two other childhood activities. Before we leave for the activity area, we discuss how these games are played along with how teams are usually picked. After a brief discussion, a method of picking teams and playing the games is decided which would typically be called "traditional." Once we arrive at the activity area, students begin to pick teams for the game of kickball while I set up a video camera to record for playback at the next class meeting. Their method for picking teams is always to have two captains pick teams. How captains are determined has varied from having the teacher pick favorites, to the two best athletes, or maybe the two tallest students. Once the captains have been decided, they begin to pick their teams. Sometime this process moves quickly, while most of the time it resembles something closer to draft day in the NFL!

Remember, these are grown adults playing a game they probably have not played for years. The game typically begins with smiles and anticipation. Following approximately a 15 minute game of kickball, the students play a game of dodgeball. If time permits, we try to get in a game of Duck, Duck, Goose or maybe Red Rover. At the end of the activities, the students are given an assignment.

They are to read two chapters on developmentally appropriate activities from a physical education book, and a "Dear Abby" article from the newspaper that talks about students being picked last in physical education. After reading the assignments, the students are to write a 2 page response to the question "After reading the assignments, do the readings support or oppose the activities we did in class today and why?" The idea behind the assignment is to have the student understand how some activities may or may not be developmentally appropriate and how important teaching quality physical education is to a child.

During the next class meeting, I collect their papers and invite student to discuss what happened the previous class while we watch the videotape of them participating in the games. The discussion is usually active with many comments about how inappropriate the games we played were for children and how physical education should offer more. Occasionally, some students comment that they see nothing wrong with the activities and that the games were very enjoyable now as well as when they were children. The most interesting aspect of the assignment is the student papers. At first, most of the papers talk about how the games were development ally inappropriate and how some games were better than others. Then I started to notice that many of the students not only answer the question, but also give personal testimony about their childhood experiences in physical education. Almost all of these personal reflections are not just negative, but just short of tragic.

As I read paper after paper, I realized how painful the students' recollections were. While it was never my intention to stir up these painful memories of physical education, I would be remiss to ignore what I see as one of the major problems within our discipline. The comments of the students are only a small sample of the population, but their reflections make a very strong argument for the importance of developmentally appropriate activities and instruction.

The following are excerpts from the assignment from college students over the past six years. They are grouped according to the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) guidelines on quality physical education (1995: opportunity to learn; meaningful content; and appropriate instruction.

Opportunity to Learn:

"As a child, I absolutely detested P. E. I was not competitive, nor was I in very good physical condition until around age 12. Unfortunately, I had P. E. teachers who were either one step from retirement and consigned us to nine months of "Capture the Flag," or teachers who themselves were athletes and demanded brutal, competitive drills and games which singled out my deficiencies. I would use any excuse in the book to avoid P. E. time, and by the time I was an adult, I was more than a little unfit. My own personal experience included several instances similar to that described in the article. I was always chosen last, if at all, and I always managed to perform miserably. This led to a long-standing hatred of personal participation in any organized sport."

Meaningful Content:

"From my personal experience, I agree with the author. I was very tiny for my age in elementary school and was always picked "last" during the games mentioned above. It made me feel self-conscious and embarrassed. I personally can attest to that because when I was in elementary school I hated that, because I could not play any of these activities well, and I was always the last one to be picked to be on a team. Therefore, I felt embarrassed and did not want to participate. I can recall being in school and playing kickball. All my team had on their mind was winning and that was it. We did not worry about being physically fit or anything else, because the winner was declared the best."

Positive experiences so that kids want to be physically active outside of physical education class and throughout their lifetime.

"I know, from experience, how it feels to be the last person called to be on a team and how it feels to go to kick the ball and miss. For these reasons, I did not enjoy physical education."

"I remember playing kickball in elementary school and hardly ever touching the ball. I did not want to because I knew that I would not do it well and disappoint my team. These games embarrassed and discouraged me to want to be physically active. Now that I am older, I enjoy physical activity, but not any competitive games. I am not good at any sport because I was never taught the skills in these sports (such as throwing, catching, kicking, etc.). I was only thrown into games "cold turkey."

"In elementary school, these are the games I played during P. E. As an adult, I am not physically fit instead I dread doing physical activities. These games can make students feel lower about themselves especially if they are the ones nobody wants on a team. This characteristic only hurts their self-esteem and gives them a negative attitude about physical education."

"I can personally attest to this fact because I was always one of the kids that were chosen last because I couldn't play very well. Therefore, I eventually despised going out to P. E. and by the time I reached middle school, I hated it. In high school, we were required to take one PE class our entire four years and I was ecstatic. Guess how many P. E. classes I took in high school. ONE."

"I hated playing dodgeball while growing up. I was scared to death of being blasted by the ball. Some of the mean boys actually aimed for the heads of us girls! I wasn't too fond of kickball either. I was afraid that I would miss the ball and fall flat on my behind in front of the entire class. So needless to say, I was delighted to discover that games such as these are no longer thought of as proper physical education sports."

Opportunities to improve emerging social and cooperative skills and gain a multi-cultural perspective.

"Games that promote cooperative learning and teaching students the benefits of good physical conditioning are much more important than having them pummeled by a ball from a classmate."

"I can remember back in P. E. in elementary school. It seemed like every day we played kickball. I can still remember picking teams and some of the arguments we had on the field. I can remember getting mad at my teammates if I did not get to play the position that I wanted to on the field. After reading chapters one and two I realize that I did not receive the quality physical education program that I should have."

"Playing these games brought back so many childhood memories. However, not all of them were pleasant. I remember being picked last, called names, and made fun of while playing these games. At the time, the teasing hurt but as I have gotten older I have forgiven what was said and done but I will never forget it."

Appropriate Instruction

"I relate to this method of teaching motor skills early on because as a child growing up I often felt uncoordinated and embarrassed when forced to play certain games or participate in some exercises."

"I thought back to my days in P. E. class, and I remember hating every moment of it. I was made to feel inferior to most of my class. I was an overweight child. I was also the last one picked and never the captain. The program was mostly a group class meaning an individual goal was not mentioned. I had to do the same things that everyone else had to do. I was unable to do some activities. The teacher should have helped me reach that particular level one step at a time. Instead, I was laughed at and screamed at by the coach."

While guarding student confidentiality is very important at every grade level, I believe that sharing some of these comments is of great importance. With the current state of inactivity of adults and children (US Department of Health and Human Services, 1996; World Health Organization, 1997) I would feel negligent in not sharing this information, knowing that there are adults who blame many of their current and past physical activity problems on prior negative experiences in physical education. While the reasons for not engaging in traditional games like dodgeball and kickball have been reported (Williams, 1992), the emotional results of playing these activities may be the principal factor for teaching activities and games that are truly "developmentally appropriate" for all children. With growing concerns for the ever present but increasing childhood obesity problem, these revealing testaments may inspire teachers and administrators to reexamine their physical education programs, question how they teach children, and plan accordingly.



Carlson, T. B. (1995). We hate gym: Student alienation from physical education. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 14, 467-477.

Council on Physical Education for Children. (1992). Developmentally appropriate physical education practices for children: A position statement of the Council on Physical Education for Children. Reston, VA: National Association for Sport and Physical Education.

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE, 1995). Moving into the future. National standards for physical education: A guide to content and assessment. St. Louis: Mosby.

Ratliffe, T., Imwold, C., & Conkell, C. (1994). Childrens' views of their third grade physical education class. Physical Educator, 51, 106-111.

Ross, J., Pate, R., Corbin, C., Delpy, C., & Gold, R. (1987). The national children and youth fitness study 1: What are kids doing in school physical education programs? Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 58(9) 78-84.

Ryan, S., Fleming, D., & Maina, M. (2003). Attitudes of middle school students towards their physical education teachers and activities. The Physical Educator, 60 (2), 28-42.

US Department of Health and Human Services (1996). Physical Activity and Health: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, DHHS, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

Williams, N. (1992). The physical education hall of shame. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, 63 (6), 57-60.

World Health Organization (1997). The Heidelberg guidelines for promoting physical activity among older persons. Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, 5, 1-8.


About the author

Stu Ryan is an Associate Professor at the University of West Florida and previously taught K-12 physical education for four years. He has made numerous presentations related to childhood obesity issues around the country.

Stu Ryan
University of West Florida
11000 University Parkway, #54-119
Pensacola, Florida 32514

©January 2006

Search New Horizons


New Horizons Links

New Horizons home

About Us (NHFL)

Current Journal

Submission Guidelines


Follow us on Facebook, Linked In, and Twitter!

Facebook Icon Twitter Icon LinkedIn Icon

New Horizons Shop

Featured Item: Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning: Insights from a Neurologist and Classroom Teacher

By Judy Willis | Purchase

Visit the New Horizons store on for more selections

New Horizons store on