Survey: Parents & Teachers Want Mandatory Health & PE Classes

Parents and Teachers Weigh In

An overwhelming majority of parents and teachers want health and physical education to be a mandatory part of the school day, according to a KidsHealth in the Classroom online survey taken by 1,173 parents and K-12 educators.

The problem is that a significant number of schools don’t offer health classes. And many schools that do have health and PE classes are not devoting enough time to the subjects or teaching them effectively, according to the survey.

Schools can play an important role in countering the obesity epidemic among U.S. youth, says Mary L. Gavin, MD, KidsHealth senior medical editor and president of the Delaware chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

“Research shows many parents don’t realize their children are overweight,” Gavin says. “And the average U.S. kid or teen spends more time in front of a computer, TV, cell phone, and video game screen each week than in school. Daily PE classes that get kids moving and health classes that explain how to choose nutritious foods and appropriate portion sizes can help kids make healthier choices.” And, Gavin notes, “Studies show that kids who are physically active do better in school.”

Most parents and educators in the survey agree. Nearly every educator (99%) said all students should be required to take PE classes, and the same number said middle school and high school students should be required to take health classes. Slightly fewer educators (93%) said elementary kids should be required to take health classes.

About 87% of parents said middle and high school students should be required to take health and PE; 78% said elementary students should be required to take health classes; and 92% said elementary students should be required to take PE classes.

Health Education Falls Short

More than a fifth of educators (22%) said their schools do not offer health education. Nearly half (49%) said that the health classes that are taught are offered weekly or less frequently, and 27% said classes are 30 minutes or briefer.

More than a quarter of educators said health classes are taught by classroom teachers, as opposed to instructors with expertise in health education.

About half (47%) of educators and 27% of parents said they felt that health education at their schools is inadequate. Not having enough time devoted to the subject was the most common complaint among these educators.

“Teachers are having to be too focused on state-mandated testing criteria to teach anything else but science, language arts, and math,” one educator wrote in the survey.

“No curriculum provided and teachers are not certified in health,” wrote another educator.

“With the frightening rate of obesity among adults and children, it alarms me that more emphasis is not placed on health education,” another educator wrote. “Teachers need resources in their classrooms.”

One educator said parents also play a role: “Parents do not always send in healthy snacks or lunches. Some children do not get outside activity after school.”

Many parents who called their school’s health education programs inadequate agreed with educators that not enough time is spent on health. Some parents, however, cited other issues.

“Students do not take it seriously,” one parent wrote. “Often, administrators will ask a teacher to alter a student’s grade in this area in order to bring up their GPA or prevent failing a class.”

“The courses don’t require much effort to pass; as a result, many students tend to be careless and not take the class lessons seriously,” said another parent.

Other parents said their children’s health curricula are not engaging:

  • “They are always teaching them about the same thing every year. My child says it gets very boring.”
  • “My child … says it’s boring and also they don’t teach them how to enjoy balanced meals, all they say is ‘eat healthy.'”

PE: Not Enough, Little Structure, Few Resources

Almost all educators (98%) said their schools offer PE, but 43% of educators and 32% of parents said PE at their schools is inadequate. Of those educators, most said that not enough time is devoted to PE and that it should be offered daily and throughout the school year.

“Our classes have been cut back from 45 minutes to 36 minutes. That includes changing time. We have nice outdoor fields that we can’t utilize due to time restraints — they require a 5-minute walk one way,” one educator wrote. “Students for the most part are sedentary … more time would allow us to get kids outdoors, include more nutrition education, and develop higher levels of skill proficiency.”

Educators cited other issues as well:

  • “Physical education is not structured and not enough time is put into the importance and understanding that adequate exercise is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle. The earlier this message is instilled, the more likely they will remain active and healthy later in life. Too much emphasis is put on academics, even though … many studies [show that] adequate exercise and health play a very important role in academics.”
  • “Kids are not taught important things such as nutrition, staying active in the winter, making working out fun.”
  • “I would like more open space to take my students outside and explore how to play outside. We don’t have open fields or a space to play a soccer game, or a tag game. … We also do not have a lot of equipment or a curriculum. That goes for our health program, too. I use KidsHealth, which is a great resource and I am happy to use it, I just wish there were more things I could add to the PE/health program for my students.”

Some parents who said their school’s PE programs are inadequate agreed with educators that not enough time was spent on the subject.

“The children only get to take PE once per week in a rotation with art, music, and computer lab. I am saddened to know that they are receiving less PE and less time with recess, making it more likely they will become sedentary, which is just feeding the growing obesity epidemic in our country,” one parent wrote. “I feel that they should not only get to take PE daily, but I feel as though they should be able to have a little more recess time. This will encourage them to be more active and healthy.”

“They only have PE once every 4 days. That is not enough time to make an impact on a child,” another parent wrote.

Other parents, however, cited different problems:

  • “The girls regularly don’t participate … many students don’t even change out of their clothes and into uniforms.”
  • “Kids are playing dodgeball or stacking cups as part of physical education instead of having gymnastics or participating in track and field.”

About Those Surveyed

KidsHealth in the Classroom anonymously surveyed 1,173 parents and educators via, twitter, and KidsHealth in the Classroom and KidsHealth newsletters from January through March 2013. A total of 666 parents and 507 educators responded.

Parents answered in relation to their children in:

  • Grades 6-8: 38%
  • Grades 9-12: 28%
  • Grades 3-5: 21%
  • K-2: 13%

Parents said their children attend:

  • Public schools: 80%
  • Private schools: 15%
  • Parochial schools: 5%

Parents said their children attend:

  • Middle or junior high schools: 32%
  • High schools: 22%
  • Elementary schools: 15%
  • Kindergarten/elementary schools: 14%
  • K-12 schools: 10%
  • K-8 schools: 7%

Educators identified themselves as:

  • Health and PE teachers: 23%
  • PE teachers: 21%
  • Classroom teachers: 17%
  • Health teachers: 14%
  • School nurses: 13%
  • Principals or other administrators: 5%
  • School counselors/psychologists: 3%

Educators said they teach at:

  • Public schools: 89%
  • Private schools: 8%
  • Parochial schools: 3%

Educators said they teach at:

  • Kindergarten/elementary schools: 24%
  • Elementary schools: 20%
  • Middle or junior high schools: 19%
  • High schools: 16%
  • K-12 schools: 11%
  • K-8 schools: 10%

Free Lesson Plans

KidsHealth in the Classroom offers educators free health-related preK-12 lesson plans, all aligned to National Health Education Standards.

Lesson plans include links to age-appropriate articles approved by experts, discussion questions, printable handouts, quizzes, and classroom activities and extensions. Educators can sign up for the free KidsHealth in the Classroom newsletter to receive links to lesson plans and other educational resources.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: April 2013