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Taking physical-education class beyond the gym

Rebekah Howse was in her last year of high school when friends persuaded her to join the new climbing club at West Kings District High School in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley. It turned out to be a life-changing decision. Bouldering – a type of rock climbing that focuses on shorter, lower routes – was the great workout she'd expected, and it had unexpected social and mental benefits as well.

"Since starting to climb, I have become much more brave and outgoing, as well as somewhat fearless," she says. "I think this comes from the need to work out problems as you advance anywhere on the wall, as well as being part of a community of outgoing, incredible people who are willing to help you with just about anything."

For those whose memories of physical-education classes include dodgeball bruises and repeated reminders that we were "bad at sports," an activity-oriented approach to physical education is encouraging. Recognizing that fitness and sports aren't the same thing, many educators are fitting activities such as yoga, biking, hiking, climbing, skateboarding and skiing into phys. ed. schedules.

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And there's evidence, including a recent study from McMaster University, showing that fitter kids do better in school, too.

"Active kids are healthier and smarter kids," says Elio Antunes, president and CEO of ParticipACTION. But only 5 per cent of children aged five to 17 get the recommended daily levels of activity, he adds.

"We need a more balanced approach, both in content and the ways that content is taught," says Enrique Garcia, associate professor of kinesiology and physical education at McGill University. At-school fitness programs that emphasize team sports serve some kids well, but they leave behind students who are less athletic or less team sports-oriented. "For many kids, physical education [class] is their only chance to be active," Garcia adds. "If they're not enjoying [it] or learning, then we have a problem."

To get kids to be more active, there needs to be more institutional support, says Caroline Fusco, associate professor of kinesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto. "There is an enormous amount of pressure on young people to get specific grades for university entrance," she says. "The physical and aesthetic courses are not valued as highly by parents, school boards and some levels of government."

These considerations have prompted many to push for alternative ways of getting kids active in school. Yukon, where one-third of students come from First Nations communities, is developing outdoor-education programs; one offers a full-semester curriculum to select students in grades 9 and 10, and integrates English, social studies, ancestral technology and phys-ed with activities such as canoeing, kayaking, hunting, fishing and winter camping.

Howse, now going into her second year at Dalhousie University, continues to climb both indoors and out. "I have nothing against the average school sports, but I believe climbing fits in, if not excels over the rest, as it allows people to grow in so many ways," she says. "Even though I may go some time without climbing because of a busy schedule, I believe I will always go back to it."

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