Today, on World Health Day, I submitted this letter (but as a more abbreviated essay version) to the Edmonton Journal (I’ll let you know if and when it gets published…) regarding the place of HEALTH in our Education curriculum. Until then, enjoy it here! It is Alberta, Canada focused but hopefully the content and references can be useful in your jurisdiction as well! Onward and upward.
An Open Letter to our Premier and Ministers of Education and Health
Dear Honourable Premier Notley and Honourable Ministers Eggen and Hoffman,
As you well know, Alberta Education is currently revising the K-12 curriculum for all subject areas. According to the website:
We are looking ahead to the future and working to ensure that provincial curriculum continues to give all students the best possible start in life and meet the demands of living in the 21st century. …placing a greater emphasis on 21st century competencies and literacy and numeracy across subjects and grades. This approach will help build an even stronger foundation for student success in a dynamic, global society and economy.
While literacy and numeracy are fundamental elements of any education system there is another element that is glaringly missing. Health. If we truly desire ‘student success in a dynamic, global society and economy’ we cannot afford to ignore the foundational role of health in today’s increasingly sedentary, inactive and unhealthy society. I am writing to all three of you because we should be long past the days of segregating education and health. Therefore, from both a health and education perspective, here are five reasons to re-imagine the value and purpose of health and physical education in schools.
- In 2002, the United Nations stated: “Literacy is crucial to the acquisition, by every child, youth and adult, of essential life skills that enable them to address the challenges they can face in life, and represents an essential step in basic education, which is an indispensable means for effective participation in the societies and economies of the 21st century.” What this means is that literacy is no longer limited to ‘reading and writing’. Physical literacy and health literacy are critical elements of education that help address societal challenges and teach essential life skills for effective citizenship.
- Therefore, physical and health literacy are just as important for the development of contributing citizens as ‘traditional’ literacy and numeracy. While Alberta students consistently score well among developed nations in PISA tests (2nd in Sciences, 3rd in Reading and 14th in Math) where we’re falling down is health. Canada was ranked 17th out of 29 ‘rich nations’ for overall child wellbeing in a 2013 UNICEF report. We need to pay more attention to health in our curriculum and give it equal priority with literacy and numeracy.
- Our kids aren’t healthy. The 2017 ParticipAction Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth found that of children aged 5-17: only 9% get 60 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity; only 24% meet the guidelines of no more than 2 hours of recreational screen-time per day and 33% have trouble falling asleep. Add to this what we know about deteriorating mental health (which physical activity also addresses) and decreased nutrition for kids and we are in trouble. Big trouble. Still want to marginalize health and physical education?
- Health and education are inextricably linked. The more educated you are, the healthier you are. And, the healthier you are the more educated you’ll be! Over and over again, the data says that if you add more physical education in the day it won’t lower your academic scores. As an example, girls who had physical education for 70 or more minutes per week attained significantly higher reading and mathematics scores than did girls with 35 or fewer minutes per week. Alberta has surpassed the $20 billion mark – almost 40% of our provincial budget – in health spending. Now more than ever, we need to invest in our future – a healthy future. Investing NOW in healthy schools, including prioritizing health and physical education, can save millions in future health costs.
- The whole child. In health and physical education we teach students to understand and take care of their own bodies, to make informed decisions and lead healthy active lives. This knowledge and application is essential to becoming a contributing citizen of Alberta and the world. In physical education, we teach students to move with confidence and competence in a variety of environments. As well, movement is essential to who we are as human beings; it is absolutely critical to growth and development across the lifespan. The health and academic benefits of physical education are important, but are truly just an extension of how movement is part of our human identity and helps us negotiate the diverse terrain of life. Therefore, education should not be considered “whole-child” unless it includes education of the physical. “…physical education is important because movement is joyful, pleasurable, provides intrinsic satisfaction, and can be personally meaningful and central to the human experience”.
Premier Notley, Minister Eggen and Minister Hoffman, as we continue down the road of curriculum re-design, I challenge you to follow the evidence and prioritize health. Implementation of a quality health and physical education curriculum is the BEST way to ensure that ALL students have the opportunity to be well: now and for the future.
 Sallis, J.F., McKenzie, T.L., Kolody, B., Lewis, M., Marshall, S., & Rosengard, P. (1999). Effects of health related physical education on academic achievement: Project SPARK. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 70(2),127-134.
Shephard, R.J. (1996). Habitual physical activity and academic performance. Nutrition Reviews, 54(4), S32-S36.
Trudeau, F., & Shephard, R. J. (2008). Physical education, school physical activity, school sports and academic performance. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 5(1), 1.
 Carlson, S.A., Fulton, J.E., Lee, S.M., Maynard, M., Brown, D.R., Kohl, III, H.W, & Dietz, W.H. (2008). Physical education and academic achievement in elementary school: Data from the early childhood longitudinal study. American Journal of Public Health, 98(4), 721-727
 Tran BX, Ohinmaa A, Kuhle S, Johnson JA, Veugelers PJ (2014) Life Course Impact of School-Based Promotion of Healthy Eating and Active Living to Prevent Childhood Obesity. PLoS ONE 9(7): e102242. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102242
 Blankenship, B.T. & Ayers, S.F. (2010). The role of PETE in developing joy-oriented physical educators. Quest, 60, 171-183.