Physical education is at the intersection of at least three major academic thoroughfares. PE has roots in exercise and sports science and represents a primary means of applying the science. PE is itself a pedagogical field and is practiced within educational systems. The public health field claims PE as a health intervention that is of increasing value due to the childhood obesity epidemic. Major intersections are often centers of culture and commerce, but the turf surrounding PE is often contested.
These are my personal observations of how the various fields view PE, though they are necessarily over-generalized. Over the decades PE programs in universities have split from exercise science departments because they could not reconcile the science and application missions. This may not be too unfortunate, because neither the scientists nor the PE practitioners tried too hard to bridge the gap between science and practice. Because all states have some kind of school physical education requirements, education departments in universities and state governments have no choice but to accommodate PE. However, there is a notable lack of enthusiasm for PE on the part of the education establishment. The federal Department of Education provides little leadership or support for PE. Many state education departments refuse to hire a physical education coordinator. After 100 years in the schools, PE is not considered a core subject and education departments remain unsure what to do with PE. The percentage of students taking PE has declined in recent years.
In my view, of the three disciplines, public health has the highest level of interest in PE, because it is part of coordinated school health and physical activity has many physical and mental health benefits. The obesity epidemic has only heightened interest in PE, because obesity is seen as a crisis needing urgent attention. But public health’s interests in PE are often not reciprocated. PE professionals seem much more interested in gaining status as a core academic discipline than in ensuring PE is optimized to benefit children’s health. Is it possible for PE to improve its status within education while improving children’s health? I will touch on this in my next entry.