Online learning poses phys ed class obstacles for families

‘Is there going to be an increase in childhood obesity? … We don’t know’

By: Kristyne E. Demske | C&G Newspapers | Published October 6, 2020

 Way Elementary School physical education teacher Lindsey Tocco’s “Miss Tocco’s Virtual Gym” offers differentiated and inclusive instruction for all participants in her bitmoji classroom.

Way Elementary School physical education teacher Lindsey Tocco’s “Miss Tocco’s Virtual Gym” offers differentiated and inclusive instruction for all participants in her bitmoji classroom.

Photo provided by Lindsey Tocco

METRO DETROIT — Wake up. Log in. Listen to a teacher over headphones and communicate with classmates through a screen. Log out.

The new school day for a child participating in online learning can look fairly sedentary, but local teachers and health officials say there are ways to make sure students are getting brain breaks and the physical activity they need, even when logging into school.

It is recommended that children ages 6-17 years old get 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day, but Dr. Robert McClowry, a Beaumont family physician at the St. Clair Shores Family Medicine Center, said it doesn’t have to be all at one time or with any fancy equipment. Recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website include taking dance breaks and running up and down the stairs.

“If you have stairs in your home, stairs are some of the best exercise equipment you have. Going up and down, you actually do get your heart rate up,” he said. “I think, a lot of times, people get overwhelmed with the kids needing that whole 60 minutes a day, but time adds up.”

He recommends activity bursts in 15-minute chunks, which have the added benefit of reducing eye strain from staring at a computer all day. While he understands the struggles of parents working at home while children are learning at home, he recommends adults take breaks from the screen, too.

“There’s no wrong way about getting creative about this,” he said.

Lindsey Tocco is a physical education teacher at Way Elementary in Bloomfield Hills and the Region 4 representative for SHAPE Michigan — the Society of Health and Physical Educators. Her school is offering hybrid learning for students, who come to the school every morning for a half day and then participate in music, art, physical education and Spanish virtually from their homes.

“Right now, I’m seeing all of my kids for 30 minutes a week, and I’m doing a live physical education lesson,” she said. “My basement is set up like a little physical education area” so she can teach the students about health and they can do exercises together.

“We’re trying to keep the kids moving and get them active. This year has been so different for them, and they’re not even getting that movement they would normally get,” by going to recess and moving around the school, she said.

Tocco and her colleagues are also providing 30 minutes of asynchronous activities that students and families can do together on their own time. Tocco said she also gives her students homework each week — to go outside and play, whether it’s running around, raking leaves or helping to clean out the garden.

“Kids and adults now more than ever need to be active,” she said. “Walking to your mailbox doesn’t really count compared with how much they’re sitting in front of computers now.”

Parents have a monumental task on their hands right now with trying to balance work and home while also helping their children acclimate to online or hybrid learning, said Sean Wade, the director of Family and Volunteer Engagement with Action for Healthy Kids, a nonprofit organization mobilizing family-school partnerships to prepare kids to be healthy in body and mind, based in Chicago.

“There will be ups and downs — that’s OK. We want to encourage parents to allow themselves to feel the down and embrace the positives that come out of this time,” he said.

He recommends parents first identify a baseline for physical activity — what is the minimum they can do each day to stay active?

“Take the opportunity to brainstorm with your kids so they are involved with the planning and get on board. Then, set a goal that’s achievable and build it into your daily schedule so it becomes part of the routine,” Wade said.

Adding movement and brain breaks into the day is energizing and activates neuroreceptors in the brain, Tocco said.

When the weather isn’t cooperative, she encourages families to seek out the activities their physical education instructors have provided or search for fun exercise activities like Cosmic Yoga on YouTube.

She has created a bitmoji virtual gym for her students because they like anything that has been “gamified.”

“They can click on a family scavenger hunt, a throwing challenge or a dribbling challenge,” she said. “A lot of us have tried to offer a wide range of ideas, because we don’t know what equipment kids have at home and what they have access to.”

Children don’t need every piece of sports equipment to participate in physical education, she said. Instead of a ball, she’s suggested her students use crumpled-up paper or a balled-up sock. Teachers are being creative to teach the same skills and concepts they would in the school building while students are at home.

“It’s trying to reach every student and making sure they feel part of the lesson,” she said. “‘I don’t have that at home’ shouldn’t be the reason they don’t exercise.”

Wade agreed.

“It’s so important right now that schools and families are working together and keeping the lines of communication open, particularly because parents are being asked to do so many different things right now,” he said. “We also know that some families have more time and resources to be able to be hands on with their kids’ learning than others — schools are there to support those who need it right now.”

Wade said parents can set timers on their phones with fun ringtones to build in breaks throughout the day, since children are used to hearing bells and other auditory cues to switch activities at school. Wade said one of his favorites is having parents work with their children to set up an obstacle course and then timing them as they complete it. Other ideas include pushup or jumping jack challenges and family lunchtime walks.

At his own house, Wade said, he created a chart of activities that he knows his son can do on his own so he can choose what he wants to do when his parents are too busy to play with him.

No one knows the long-term effects about so much screen time for children, but McClowry said children and adolescents are “incredibly resilient.”

“I do know we are worried about, is there going to be an increase in childhood obesity? And we don’t know, so that’s why we’re doing activities like this, to get kids active, keep it going,” he said.

The online exercise industry is so diverse that parents can find body weight exercises, yoga, dance and more to keep their children moving, he said.

“Just because it’s not done with a home weight set or a gym doesn’t mean it’s not effective,” he said.

For more ideas to keep kids active with minimal or no equipment, sample school-day schedules, mindful movement activities and more, visit