There’s a quiet revolution in physical education. The focus on team sports that gave athletic stars a chance to shine is shifting to one that prepares all students to be fit for life. While recess is under siege at many schools struggling to cram more academics into the school day, students at schools that embrace the new PE are participating in a class their parents wouldn’t recognize.

Elementary school PE

The national PE teachers’ organization, The National Association for Sports & Physical Education, recommends that school-age kids participate daily in 60 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity. The group advocates the kind of PE pioneered by Phillip Lawler in Naperville, Illinois, in the 1990s: a planned instructional program with specific objectives that aims to teach students how to be fit and enjoy physical activity.

This starts in elementary school with teaching children basic movement skills and developing these skills in a wide range of physical activities.

“Somewhere throughout the school year, the child should feel there’s an activity they’re successful at,” says Jacalyn Lind, president of the national PE teachers’ organization.

This doesn’t mean team sports aren’t part of a good PE program. But teachers may modify the rules, the size of teams or the equipment to insure that all kids are involved, active and getting practice in new skills.

What does this look like from the sidelines?

“You may never see an adult form of a game until high school,” says Lind. Take soccer, where a team normally has 11 members. “In 11-on-11 soccer, that’s 1 ball, 11 on each team. What are the chances of getting to make contact with the ball? But 3-on-3 soccer has a low equipment-to-student ratio.” That translates into more skill-building for more students.

PE, old and new

Old PE: Students take a physical fitness test once a year, with little conditioning or understanding of how the results might relate to individual goals. The results are interpreted in relation to national norms, posted publicly and the best-performing kids can get awards.

New PE: Fitness is regularly assessed as part of a process to help children understand how to enjoy and improve their physical fitness. Students are physically prepared and scientifically based fitness systems are sometimes used. The results are private and used to set personal goals.

Old PE: Push-ups are used as punishment.

New PE: Activity is a reward. Students who complete an academic assignment go to an activity station where they might spend time practicing a dance video game — a cardiovascular workout and a chance to develop coordination.

In other words, the new PE is a chance for all kids — from future quarterbacks to soccer dads — to acquire the skills they’ll use as adults and an understanding of why it’s important to use them.

Lawler says those who teach it should ask themselves every day: “What am I teaching these children today that’ll be important for the rest of their lives?”