This is an excerpt from Promoting Elementary School Physical Activity by Russell R. Pate & Ruth P. Saunders.
Creating and enhancing the physically active school environment can be accomplished as part of planning and conducting a comprehensive school physical activity program. This process is presented in chapter 9, which describes the tasks involved in forming a school physical activity committee and hiring or appointing a school physical activity coordinator. Together the coordinator and committee guide the process of assessing the school environment and physical activity opportunities, developing a plan for action based on these results, and carrying out the plan to create a physically active school. The following sections focus on additional considerations that are important for effecting school physical environment, social environment, and policy change.
School Physical Environment
Beyond reconfigurations of classroom furniture and space, changing the school environment may seem daunting. Improving or adding fixed environmental features can require substantial resources, as well as causing disruption from construction. Changing, adding, or removing physical activity facilities, such as fixed playground equipment or markings, may raise safety concerns or require policy change (see the next section on enhancing the school policy environment). It is important to have some open space for play and physical activity. Changes such as obtaining additional portable equipment for use in classes and at recess may be easier to make. These changes may require fewer resources to obtain, or they may be donated by a community partner.
For schools with limited resources, a good approach is to be creative and work within the existing school environment, at least in the short run. Parent–teacher organizations can help with fundraising. If it is not feasible to change the school physical environment, change your attitude; focus on resources that are available and what you can do with them (Acosta et al., 2021).
School Social Environment
A school social environment that promotes physical activity has a positive motivational climate, facilitates school connectedness through physical activity opportunities such as quality recess, and has school staff providing physical activity opportunities at school, encouraging children to be physically active, and participating in physical activity at school. You can review these concepts in previous chapters as follows:
- How to facilitate positive motivational climates for students was presented in chapters 4 and 5.
- Strategies for providing high-quality recess were presented in chapter 3.
- Teacher roles in providing opportunities for physical activity were covered in chapters 1, 2, and 7.
In addition, review the online resource for creating school connectedness (CDC, n.d.).
This section focuses on staff physical activity modeling through school-based wellness programs. A staff wellness program that features physical activity opportunities for adults in the school can be part of the school’s comprehensive school physical activity program (see chapter 9). The following is an overview of the steps to providing a walking program for adults in the school based on experiences of one elementary school (Langley and Lulinna, 2018).
- Gain support and approval. Administrative support at the school and district levels is essential to starting and maintaining the program. Talk to school staff; find out how a walking program could meet their needs. Talk about the benefits of walking. If you learn they would prefer a different program, provide the physical activity program that they want. The staff wellness program should meet the needs of staff. It is also important to communicate with parents, students, and community members.
- Lay out a walking path on campus. If a path or track does not exist, work with the appropriate people in the school to map out a route that can be used for the walking program. Measure the distance and mark the path, or create simple maps.
- Set scheduled times for walking (if you would like to coordinate a student and staff walking program) or allow staff members to walk at any time during the workday that suits their schedule. School policy or practice change may be needed to enable staff to walk at school during the workday. It is fine to walk several times a day for short durations (such as 10 minutes).
- Devise methods for individuals to track their walking. Pedometers, phone apps, or other technologies are available to most adults, or a community partner may be able to donate them. If technology is not available, adults can count and record laps. Alternatively, develop a centralized method of monitoring walking; this approach requires staff or volunteers and works best with a set schedule for walking.
- Promote your walking program. Use existing communication strategies available at your school to advertise your program, including the morning broadcast, staff meetings, website, social media, and email.
Keep it fun and interesting. Here are some ideas:
- Encourage participants to find a walking buddy.
- Encourage participants to set personal goals to walk a certain distance. Teams could keep track of distances and set a goal to “walk across the state” or to another destination.
- Introduce seasonal walking events.
- Sponsor friendly group walking challenges.
- Ask participants what would keep them going.
An alternative to providing physical activity opportunities for adults during the school day is for the school or school district to partner with a local gym or wellness provider to offer discounted memberships, programs, or classes for teachers at times that work in their schedule.
A comprehensive resource for planning and carrying out staff wellness programs, “Healthy School, Healthy Staff, Healthy Students. A Guide to Improving School Employee Wellness,” is available through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (NACDD, 2018).
School Policy Environment
The process of implementing school policies is complex and not well understood (Lounsbery, 2017). The level of the policy is important (Lounsbery, 2017). School policies in the United States operate at the federal, state, school district, school, and class levels. Each level has a different policy-making body or policy maker. For example, the state level has a governor, legislature, superintendent of education, board of education, and department of education. Enacting change in state laws generally requires a coordinated advocacy campaign from a state-level coalition of dedicated people working together over years, which is beyond the scope of this book. Nonetheless, state laws pertaining to physical education in the United States do exist. A review reveals that stronger physical education laws, mostly related to the frequency and duration of physical education class, result in more physical activity among youth, and that state physical education laws are effective to the extent local school districts and schools implement them (An et al., 2021). It is important that school staff and parents be aware of the physical education and physical activity laws in place in their state.
Most schools interested in promoting physical activity will operate at the level of school district, school, and class, although schools strive to remain compliant with relevant federal and state laws and policies. Different strategies are needed to facilitate change at each of these levels, and formal policies are often at the school district level. At the school and class levels are often school regulations, rules, and less formal school practices related to physical activity (Lounsbery, 2017).
The content of physical activity policies affects the school physical activity environment and the provision of physical activity opportunities before, during, and after the school day. Language for effective policies is clear and specific; for example, wording such as “should” or “is encouraged” is less effective than “must” and “is required” (Lounsbery, 2017). Implementing policies can be a challenge for schools because of limited school resources, lack of procedures to install policy, and lack of accountability for noncompliance (Lounsbery, 2017).
The process for change in school policies and practices is advocacy. In this process, a dedicated individual, such as a physical education teacher, school physical activity coordinator, or parent, or a group, such as the school physical activity committee (see chapter 9), promotes a specific cause. Communication is directed toward the policy-making body or policy maker as well as others who might want to join the cause. Lounsbery (2017) describes advocacy as working to change the following:
- Knowledge, by bringing awareness to current practice and its problems
- Values perspective, by creating personal, social, and financial investment in the cause
- Policy, by promoting policy development, adoption, and change
Depending on the level of change needed, policy decision bodies and policy makers may be at the district level (e.g., school board, superintendent, curriculum director) or the school level (e.g., principal, curriculum coordinator), and some physical activity practice changes take place at the classroom level (Lounsbery, 2017). Table 8.1 outlines possible policy areas with examples of specific policies at the school level to support physical activity in elementary schools.