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Physical Education .... give it your all!
Ana Baert, 3/8/2011

Editor's Note from Susan Richman: I hope each of you enjoy this article as much as I do! I know Ana Baert, a homeschooling mother now from New Jersey, because all of her three teens are in our AP Online classes. She happened to write asking me a question about listing Phys Ed on her older daughter's transcript-- and from her brief description of how the whole family was involved in tennis and a number of other sports, I knew she had a wonderful story to share. And what comes through here so strongly is the very positive impact that regular fitness activities and sports involvement has had on their whole attitude towards family life, homeschooling, and everyone's ability to handle real challenges in life. Be ready for something heart-warming, folks-- AND be ready to lace up your running shoes and get out there and take part wholeheartedly yourself in getting fit and active! Makes me look forward to my planned 6 mile walk later today! 

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Jon, Maggie, and Evelyn Baert at a Thanksgiving Day 'Turkey Trot' race

In 2004, my husband and I and our three children moved to the Bronx, NY. Our children were entering  4th, 3rd, and 1st grade. This was the beginning of our wonderful, and still on-going, home school adventure. As overwhelming as the task ahead seemed, in addition to adjusting to life in “Da Bronx,”  I knew my advantage was that all three children had been to public school and knew very well what “school” meant. I did not need to go through the awkward phase of explaining why our kitchen table suddenly became a desk, and why getting up for no reason in the middle of a subject was just unacceptable. The first day of home schooling was cute: I had three very eager children looking at me and even raising their hand! They had no idea I felt like the butcher-baker-candlestick maker- all-in-one as I tried to figure out what I was supposed to tell them to do, in what order, and for how long.

The beginning was a bit overwhelming. I felt like I got so much done as far as academic subjects go, yet the fact remained that we had stayed inside our apartment every day- all day - for the first two weeks. Each day I would look at the children and say “today, we’ll go outside,” and I broke my promise each time. Please note, I did not have the option of simply telling the kids to go play in the yard as I stayed inside.  We had no yard. I would have to be outside with them for the obvious reason that it would be unsafe to leave them out there alone. Not to mention that just playing  in the yard is not physical education.

Those two weeks flew by and I knew I needed help. In public or private school Physical Education (P.E.)  is not an option. As a student you know that P.E. is not an elective. It is on predetermined days which do not fluctuate based on weather, mood, other subjects, schedules, etc. When it’s time for gym class, everyone conforms and gets the required exercise no matter what. I decided to approach the principal: my husband! I started with my whole drawn-out  explanation about the challenge of fitting in exercise. He came up with a simple solution immediately. Nick asked when I wanted to do gym class. I hesitated and replied that two days would suffice. He asked what days. I figured Monday and Wednesday would do. He then stated that from now on, gym would be on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. (Hadn’t I just said two days???)

Monday, Nick came home from work and asked everyone to get ready for P.E. The children were so excited! I wondered what gym would be on a very, very, tight family budget. (My husband pastors a small, store-front church in the Bronx and is a union mason; besides, any sport is costly in the City for a single-income family.) He decreed that a pair of sneakers is all that was needed. Yes, running is still free! Then came what I can now see as a pivotal moment in my life: my husband looked at me and asked why I wasn’t getting ready to go running. I had been looking forward to this moment when, for the first time in two weeks, I could actually be alone. All alone. I thoroughly explained how I could  do the dishes that had been piling up all day, I could even be more productive and do laundry, I could start dinner, I could return a phone call, I could read, and maybe, just maybe  simply close my eyes and do sweet nothing. Nick just stood there and said they would wait for me and we would go together. I pleaded, I stated my case, I even reasoned with him that as a good homeschooling dad, this could be his active role in the education of our children. Nick didn’t budge. I knew right then and there, with these three, precious, little ones observing the exchange, that if I bucked now I was setting a dangerous precedent. If I stayed home with my good excuses, the day would come when all the children would do the same. I also knew I hated running with all my being. Inside, I was screaming, whining, and just having a tantrum. On the outside, I glared at my best friend, and went to put on my sweats and sneakers.

We ran for a half mile alongside Pelham Parkway where other cyclists, walkers, and runners were coming and going. I hated it. Of course, I smiled at the onlookers. One of the beautiful things about NY City, is that you can be 8 feet tall sporting a purple Mohawk and just blend right in. But, somehow, running with three little ones caught people’s attention. I smiled, waved back, and was so happy no one knew that we were running at a snail’s pace because of me - they thought we were going slowly for the children’s sake. Eventually, that half mile turned into a mile, which turned into 2 miles, which resulted in the children wanting to run a five-mile “Turkey Trot” on Thanksgiving day that November. (Needless to say, my plea that I should at least have a national holiday off was null and void.)

It was clear, right from the start, that the time outside was necessary and productive. I had to constantly fight off the idea that doing Physical Education was not as important as doing the academic subjects. I was of the taskmaster mentality that doing an extra math lesson, or some extra pages in the grammar book would be much more productive in the long run. I was completely wrong. The children were more motivated to work because they could look forward to that time outside; they saw it as a reward. And, I had to admit, the time outside did wonders for me. I still screamed inside just about every time we went out and I soon stopped looking for the ever-elusive “runner’s high.”  I can honestly say part of me despised running for the first two years. But every time I did it, I felt so good afterwards.

There were many days my husband was just too tired to exercise after working outside in extreme weather conditions or his job site was too far for him to be home before dark.  But, now seeing the benefits of the family exercise plan, I had to continue with the children. They needed it, they were counting on it and, truth was, I probably needed it more than they did. We found a small playground in the neighborhood and noticed that almost no one used it. I went into the school building of the UCP (United Cerebral Palsy of NY City) and asked for permission to use their playground. They readily responded that I was welcome to do so after 2 p.m.  This became “our” yard and we often went there to exercise. We brought a jump rope, we did “duck walks” around the jungle gyms, push-ups, and stretched. Now here came another pivotal moment for me. Being that this was a playground, I very well could just sit there and watch the children romp around. I was even on my cell phone a couple of times. My heart sank (again) when the children  came up to me and asked me to play WITH them. Didn’t they see I was with them ALL day? I told them to just play. I slowly began to see what they meant. Yes, I was their teacher, I fed them, I did all the things mommy’s do - but play, now?! I was tired! But, I played. I ran around and played tag. And, guess what? I had fun!

Sometimes we would head out to the local park at Orchard Beach, and play tennis on their public courts. This occasional activity turned into discovering free tennis lessons. Of course, now that I was a bona fide city girl, I was immediately suspicious of anything “free,” especially tennis lessons. The catch: it was at 5 a.m. on Saturday mornings inside the Mt. Vernon tennis bubble. I can remember one of the three children always coming to wake us up at 4 a.m. to make sure they could go and play. Those winter mornings, when the weather was about 30 degrees below freezing, we actually both tried to finagle our way out of going and staying home, but there was no way out now: these kids were growing up, they were motivated, and they were counting on me - on us -  to be there for them.

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Years later these activities have culminated into tennis tournaments, more 5 mile “Turkey trots,” and even a first half-marathon. We’ve learned the importance of healthy eating, proper hydration, and even the pre and post stretch needs for each form of exercise we’ve come to enjoy.

I could list so many ways in which exercise was and continues to be a crucial part of home schooling. For instance, four years ago an unfortunate family event took us overseas for a year. We went to France to take care of my aunt who was battling breast cancer. Without getting into the details of that grueling battle, I cannot emphasize enough the critical role exercise played during that time. We ran as a family in the pre-Alps of the Haute Savoie, right on the border of Geneva, Switzerland. We walked for hours with my aunt, we joined her in her exercise routines, we played tennis and swam at community centers, and our son learned to play rugby with a local youth rugby club. It was all an essential outlet during a time that would have been utterly overwhelming.

As the children grow and are now sixteen, fifteen, and thirteen, physical exercise is a must to keep the peace in the house. Obviously, if we lived on a farm or had access to Christopher Robin’s hundred-acre wood, I am sure we could come up with plenty of chores and activities to help everyone stay active and get tired in a healthy way. But is that really physical education? Where does a child learn to catch and throw a ball, or experience the elements of sports that are purely educational? Physical weariness is so much easier to bear than mental fatigue. But you still need to be taught to exercise.

Now we live in an apartment in Jersey City and we have to be proactive to keep these bodies in motion. We go to the public tennis courts almost daily when the weather is good. Tennis is the sport I grew up playing as a child, in high school, and in college. However, I thought I had put that sport away many years ago and never, ever, imagined I would end up being the children’s coach. New Jersey law will not allow home schooled children to partake on their school team sports. We have accumulated some interesting stories over the past few years, experiencing anything from coaches periodically trying to recruit the children, to being thoroughly cursed out by a group of city kids.

Exercise, like anything else we do, takes planning and a conscious effort to embrace. As with cooking, the pots don’t jump into our laps with the ingredients; as with home instruction, the books don’t leap off  the shelves to grasp our attention. And, as with any aspect of home schooling, there are many days where the exercise is a challenge when the unmotivated teenage hormones occasionally show their unruly face. I remember the principle that in any other school setting there is no opting out of P.E. class due to mood swings.It is amazing the effect that a simple run, or any good, heart-felt activity will do for moments like these. After a good sweat, nobody has any desire left to argue. Physical exertion is just a phenomenal form of discipline and therapy.

It is so fulfilling  to reach the point where old-fashioned stick-to-itiveness bears fruit. This principle applies to physical education. From personal experience, I urge you to pursue  that education along with your children. Our new venture this year was the weight room and swimming pool at a local college during the winter months. (Not to mention the ping pong tables!) We approached this cautiously in order to seek out a new facet for sports training. My husband, once again, jumped on board wholeheartedly, especially since his work schedule considerably slows down during the winter. Oh, I could just hear myself groan at the thought of another crazy way to contort my body! But, at this point, I know better - we all do. We all know the benefits, we all feel them, and we all crave the team spirit these activities foster. 

The role exercise plays, which I initially undertook as just getting a requirement out of the way, has become such an integral part of our life.  I hope and pray that this simple story of how much it has done for our family might motivate and encourage you as a homeschooling family to do the same. I still cringe when someone looks at us as though we were born to home school, that it is something that just comes naturally to us. No. It takes a very conscious family effort to make that decision and have it succeed. Likewise, many see us working out and comment on how “that’s just them, that’s not for me.” I would caution anyone who sees physical exercise this way. It is more than recreation; it is a way of life.

A few days ago we were going over the AP study schedule with the children explaining how, now that the winter holidays have passed, the instructors would gear up their students for the important AP exam. The assignments will change and the course load will get a bit tougher. Besides, we were discussing how to fit in the study time for SAT and SAT Subject exams, college applications, etc. One of our children looked at me and stated, “It’s like the Turkey Trots we’ve done, Mommy, we’ve run three miles and now we change the pace during the next two miles, so we can prepare to sprint at the end and not burn out.”  “Yes!” I replied, “that’s exactly right, Sweetie, just pace yourself and finish strong.”


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