Parents might not think a lot about gym class safety, but it looks like they should. From 1997 to 2007, gym class accidents rose 150%. Hundreds of thousands of children and teens are treated in emergency rooms across the country because of accidents in their gym or physical education (PE) classes. What can parents do to ensure gym class safety?
Who Is Teaching Gym Class?
When back-to-school orientation rolls around, make time to attend it. It is, of course, a great time to get to know your teen's teachers who teach academic subjects. You can also meet his or her PE teacher. Find out what kind of background the gym teacher has. Does he or she have a degree in something related to physical activity? Is the teacher permanent or a substitute? What kind of experience does the instructor have? Hopefully better credentials means increased gym class safety.
Ask the gym teacher about how classes are run. First, you can ask about rules. Are there rules about running by the swimming pool? Are there rules for physical contact? What is allowed and what is not OK during class? How are discipline issues handled? You can also ask about the curriculum. Does the gym teacher do activities on the spur of the moment, or is there a plan to the school year? A PE curriculum that helps to increase the student's physical fitness and skills gradually throughout the year is one that might help to prevent injury. Lastly, are the students encouraged (or mandated) to strech or warm up? Research suggests that warming up and stretching might help to prevent some injuries.
If your child has a chronic illness, such as asthma or diabetes, or has an bone or joint issue, it is even more important to meet your teen's gym teacher. Explain to the instructor the limits your child has and find out how they will be handled during class time. Find out how your teen can make up that work, and how the situation will be handled. Ask about what kind of documentation the school requires if a special exception needs to be made for your teen because of a health condition. Make sure that the information is correct and up to date, and if there is an end point for the restrictions. Letting the gym teacher know in advance what your child's needs are will make for a smoother school year.
The equipment your teen uses can play a roll in gym class safety. First and foremost, your teen should have appropriate clothing and shoes for gym class. These do not need to be trendy or pricey items. Your teen will need warm clothing for the winter if there are outdoor activities and cooler clothing for the summer or indoor activities. Keeping the body at a healthy temperature is important for overall health. Additionally, your teen should have sturdy sneakers made for physical activity. Flat bottomed sneakers with no arch support are not ideal. Sneakers that offer some cushioning and support are best and protect the feet from hard impacts. Sneakers or athletic shoes should fit well and be comfortable (and have non-marking soles because of gym class floors!). There is no proof that fancy and expensive sneakers are safer than average sneakers, so you don't need to spend a fortune on them.
At your visit to school, check out the school's PE equipment. Is the gym heated and air conditioned? Is there gym equipment and is it in good repair? Is the gym floor in good shape? Sturdy equipment that won't break during usage or cause a hazard is important. Protective equipment is also essential for any sport being played. Shin guards for soccer, helmets for football, chest protectors for fencing – if safety equipment is usually used for an activity, the school needs to supply it for all students.
Many schools will offer outdoor physical activities during gym class when appropriate. Find out where this would take place and assess it's safety. Is the area free of debris and well maintained? Is there good lighting? Do they take gym outside when air quality is poor? Is their traffic nearby? Is the neighborhood safe? The outdoor area used for gym is as important as the indoors areas.
Gym Class Safety and Your Teen
Your teen has some responsibility to stay safe during gym class. Is he or she in adequate physical shape? Your teen doesn't have to run marathons, but should be able to keep up with the average person in their class. If your child has been a couch potato all summer, encourage him or her to get out and walk. Walking is a great “introduction” exercise to more vigorous physical activity. Don't rule out exercising as a family – family fitness is a great goal for everyone to strive for! You can also consider giving your teen the gift of a membership to a local YMCA or gym to promote physical activity throughout the summer or the entire year.
A large number of injuries to boys during gym class are due to colliding with another person or a structure like a wall. Talk to your teen boy about the dangers of goofing off or rough housing in gym class. An ounce of prevention may save you a trip to the emergency room.
These are broad guidelines to follow if you are interested in gym class safety. Each school is different, so learn as much as you can about what is being done to keep your teen safe during gym class. You can help to make your child one less patient at the emergency room this school year.
Nelson, N.G., MPH, Alhajj, M., BA, Yard, E., MPH, PhD, Comstock, D., PhD and McKenzie, L., PhD, MA. Physical Education Class Injuries Treated in Emergency Departments in the US in 1997–2007. Pediatrics, 2009.
Physical Education Standards and Quality. Health, Mental Health and Safety Guidelines for Schools. August 5, 2009. http://www.nationalguidelines.org/guideline.cfm?guideNum=3-02