Students Get Unique Outdoor Offerings with PE Program

A knee injury at 15 from playing hockey dogged Patrick Murphy past his high school graduation, cutting short his Olympic badminton training.

Now Murphy, an administrator in the Half Hollow Hills district, is reshaping the teenage gym class experience by offering alternatives to team sports that educators say are played less frequently in adulthood. Mountain biking, snowshoeing, kayaking and fly fishing are options in gym class alongside volleyball, basketball and soccer.

The instruction — gaining steam on Long Island and in districts across the state — aims to teach students fitness habits that will stand them in good stead long after high school is over.

"Most adults, except for the die-hards, don't play your main sports when they are older," said Pat Pizzarelli, who serves as executive director of Section VIII, Nassau County's governing body for interscholastic sports. "Either their bodies can't do it, or you don't find the time."

Murphy recalled his own experience as a young athlete as a class of teenagers on mountain bikes circled the Half Hollow Hills East campus' roughly 100-acre grounds — some in packs, others in pairs — on a recent fall day. Students should avoid a single-focus outlook on sports, he advised, because after an injury, "where's your foundation to move on?"

"From a mental health standpoint, you need to have that foundation there, so if they don't meet with success, and they end up having an injury that they can't play anymore, they need to be grounded in the fact that's not the end of the world," said Murphy, 44, a Miller Place High School alum who trained at the Olympic Center in Michigan for three-plus years in the early 1990s.

School districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties have incorporated elements of what are called "lifetime" sports since at least the 1980s, Pizzarelli said, pointing to ropes courses, yoga, Pilates and dance classes that are taught in gym classes Islandwide.

Few districts, however, offer an expansive menu of outdoor sports options.

Adding outdoor gym classes

The Patchogue-Medford district is considering adding the track as part of a five-year curriculum revamp. The Half Hollow Hills district has increased the number of outdoor gym classes, with 21 sections this school year. The number is up from 13 last year and seven in the 2015-16 school year.

The Longwood school district is in its ninth year of offering a track in outdoor education, a program that has grown each year with the addition of new activities and equipment. It was launched as a two-week pilot program with students learning to fish by tying knots and casting flyrods in the soccer fields behind the high school.

Nowadays, the fieldwork for varying athletic units includes class trips to Smith Point County Park in Shirley for surf casting and to Cathedral Pines County Park in Middle Island for mountain biking along its trails.

"I like how it opens up the kids to different experiences. We live on Long Island; we're surrounded by water, and they've never had a fishing rod in their hands," said Shawn Dillon, department chairman for physical education and health at Longwood High School.

The shift in philosophy, he said, means it is no longer acceptable "to be that cookie-cutter and say 'You know what, you're going to play football and soccer. You're going to do that whether you like it or not, because that's what we do here.' "

A turn from tradition, the new instruction has the potential to end the anxieties long associated with gym class. No more mixing students of unequal skill level and getting picked last.

"There's some historically not-fun memories of kids in phys ed," Dillon said. "It gives the kids the opportunity to say 'You know what, I don't see myself out there with the elite athlete and playing flag football because that's not me.' "

Shreya Krishnan, 16, a junior at Half Hollow Hills High School East, expressed appreciation that her school offers the alternative tracks.

"This is a lot different than just doing the regular sports that most people already know how to play," she said after riding in the last mountain-biking lesson of the season.

Half Hollow Hills offers several different tracks, with choices for outdoor sports; individual activities such as pickleball, archery, table tennis and golf; and team sports that include flag football, floor hockey and soccer.

Students are more eager to perform the activities they pick themselves, Murphy said. With some team activities, a handful of students may stand off to the side, Murphy said. "This just gives everybody 100 percent participation. Everybody's participating at their own level."

As a result, he said, injuries have "drastically declined" in class and participation rates are up.

Emphasizing fitness habits

Last month on Election Day, with school out of session, physical education teachers in the Patchogue-Medford district listened as Paul Zientarski, a Naperville, Illinois consultant hired by the district, spoke of toppling traditional methods of teaching phys ed and emphasizing fitness habits.

"How many of you have ever coached a professional athlete?" Zientarski asked the group of about 40 teachers attending the mandatory professional development. One instructor raised a hand. "They didn't become a professional athlete because of physical education class," Zientarski said.

Ryan Cox, the district's director of athletics, physical education, health education and nurses, said administrators are exploring a curriculum that would include the outdoor activities played in Longwood and Half Hollow Hills.

"We're looking to get away from the traditional units such as team games, flag football, soccer unit — still incorporating those games, but modifying them so they're more high-paced, more inclusive and fitness-based," he said.

Cox, speaking from experience, said a small percentage of people join flag football and basketball leagues in their late 20s and 30s.

"I'm not joining a baseball league anymore," said Cox, who is 39. "I need to join a spin class at the gym. Those are the things we want to teach our students and eventually get to."

Across the state, "it's moving away from the sport ed model and getting kids to make choices: What can I do for the rest of my life," said Monica Wolfe, president of the New York State Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, a statewide professional organization based in upstate Little Falls that supports and provides resources for health and physical education.

Wolfe is a physical education teacher at Cooperstown Junior-Senior High School, where cross-country skiing, fly fishing, kayaking and camping are offered.

Enthusiasm for outdoor sports extends beyond the school day. At Ward Melville High School in East Setauket, social studies teacher Bob Wilson leads an after-school fishing club that meets every Tuesday. During a recent lesson, he simulated casting and reviewed the best tactics for fishing for blackfish.

The club plans outings for when the weather is appropriate, but "we meet all winter long," Wilson said of the after-school discussion. On the weekends and during the summer, several of the students work as mates on a fishing boat, where they help each other as colleagues while dealing with customers, cutting bait, tying lines and unhooking fish.

"We have a real big mish-mosh of all different cliques in the high school. Kids who are big into academics, kids who are big into sports, and kids who don't really have a niche," Wilson said. "And this is their niche."

Different approach to athletics

A new initiative in the Lawrence school district seeks to shift the focus away from athletics as an all-important element of life. High school athletes, beginning this winter, are signing a pledge that defines the school's "athletic philosophy," which states in part that "high school sports are nothing more than a means to an end. It is not a training ground for a college scholarship or a professional contract."

Christian Paulino, an assistant principal at Lawrence High School, said "a lot of schools are very 'rah-rah, sis-boom-bah' when it comes to winning. It's important that we focus on that winning as a result of the process. It's not the end-all-be-all."

Paulino, 34, who was a catcher on his high school's baseball team and a Division II athlete in college, added, "It's too often that you hear stories of great athletes leaving the high school, and they don't really amount to much."

"The concern is that I think sometimes, you know, people can get caught up on the things that aren't necessarily the important parts," Paulino said. "Sometimes X's and O's can kind of take precedent when it comes to the student as a whole."

As participation in nontraditional sports grows, Pizzarelli said districts should strike an appropriate balance between offering individual and team sports, which are valuable for developing sportsmanship, collaboration and competition.

"People have to realize that no one's going to push these kids to exercise and go to health clubs in gyms, to get the exercise that they need to have a healthy balanced life," Pizzarelli said. The push is important, he said, "because once kids leave school, no one is making them go to gym and run a mile."

Physical education beyond the status quo

The Longwood and Half Hollow Hills school districts are among those on Long Island offering versatile physical education activities.

Longwood High School requires freshmen and sophomores to take a varied curriculum that includes lessons in golf, tennis, fitness and European handball.

It allows juniors and seniors to choose among five tracks. Here are some class options for each track.

- Team sports: football, basketball, softball

- Outdoor sports: fly fishing, canoeing, camping, snowshoeing

- Lifetime activities: cross fit, yoga, suspension training, weight room

- Net sports: tennis, badminton

- Dance: cultural, modern and fitness-based

The Half Hollow Hills district has three high school phys ed tracks.

- Team sports: flag football, handball, soccer, basketball, floor hockey

- Outdoor education: orienteering, rock climbing, practicing fly fishing on land, winter hiking on school grounds

- Individual activities: tennis, golf, pickleball, dance, table tennis

Sources: Longwood and Half Hollow Hills school districts

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