Students in Michelle Lawson’s physical education classes at Highlands Elementary play soccer and basketball — but they also throw rubber chickens in the air in the name of exercise.
It’s creative programs like that that led the Kansas Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance to give Highlands a model school award.
Other elements the association considers when giving this honor include the teacher’s methods, the way students are assessed, access to appropriate facilities, and communication and support from administrators.
The association praised Lawson’s creative programming and ability to get other staff members and the students’ families involved in various ways of encouraging kids to exercise. Lawson has taught at the Shawnee Mission school for 21 years.
“Michelle displays incredible dedication and focus in teaching health-related fitness. Her convictions in this area should have great impact on the students she teaches,” said chairperson Michelle DiLisio in a press statement.
Lawson, who received the award on behalf of the school at the association’s state convention in Lawrence, said she doesn’t know who nominated the school for the award.
She tries to keep kids active outside of two weekly 30-minute gym classes with a before-school walking club and by helping classroom teachers integrate physical activities into lessons.
“In math, sometimes the kids are asked a question and then to do that many jumping jacks. In language arts, it could be if you’re reading a story, when they hear the wind, they can wave their arms above their heads,” Lawson said.
She also has a fitness room available for kids to use during indoor recesses.
Her classes aren’t just about the traditional sports most people remember from school. Lawson uses Wii dancing games, Zumba, cup stacking and an Olympic sports unit to keep kids interested. She advocates small group activities, where each player gets a chance to make a big difference in the game.
Rubber chickens and rubber penguins are also popular in gym class activities.
“We do lots of throwing and catching with that… We’ll use a parachute to launch the rubber chicken in the air. We have games where we launch rubber chickens at objects and try to knock them down … or launch them for distance,” she said.
Lawson also pays attention to the social impact of gym classes. She said she doesn’t want anyone to be embarrassed or scared to climb a rope in front of the class, so she has alternative activities for students to do to show they have increased their upper body strength.
The activities aren’t without competition: Lawson bases speed-focused games on the TV show “Minute to Win It.”
Another philosophy Lawson follows is making sure sports in her class help students exercise both sides of their bodies, which helps stimulate both sides of the brain. This, in turn, she said, will help them focus on their academic subjects.
“They really like things that are different and novel. They can, depending on how you teach them, have more time on task and more additional benefits than just sports skills,” she said. “There’s research that says doing any kind of physical activity that gets your heart rate up increases blood flow to the brain and decreases attention and behavior problems in the classroom.”
She said there are curriculum guidelines for all physical education classes, which aim to develop certain motor skills and educate kids about how exercise affects them.
“We’ll talk about ‘this is what my heart does when…’ We play a game called ‘artery avengers’ where you’re trying not to let your arteries get blocked by cholesterol,” she said. “Some of them are silly, but they have a teaching component.”