The Pivotal but Difficult Role of Schools in Youth Physical Activity

by aglowka October 25, 2019 comments

Published October 25, 2019

The Pivotal but Difficult Role of Schools in Youth Physical Activity

For many youth, school provides an equitable access point for regular physical activity (PA), especially as economic and other concerns prevent parents from being able to enroll their children in private physical activity programs. Research supports the large influence schools have on promoting and improving youth PA, namely due to the significant amount of time youth spend at school (Hills, Dengal, & Lubans, 2015). As organized physical activity programs become less accessible for various communities in King County, including low-income youth and youth of color, school-based physical activity has a unique and powerful role to reduce inequity in physical activity rates in our region.

The benefits of school-based PA for physical, mental, and emotional health are well-documented: 

  • Schools with higher PA rates are shown to have better attendance and a more positive school environment (RWJF, 2010). 
  • Perceptions of physical competency, often developed through school-based physical education, are notable factors influencing PA in youth. PE lessons focusing on fundamental movement and behavioral skills like jumping, running, and “object control” (like throwing or kicking) serve as a foundation for PA across the lifetime (Hills et al., 2015).


State of Play: Seattle-King County found consensus among parents and educational leaders about the importance and benefits of PA in school. 

  • Fifty-nine percent of all parents surveyed say that PA at school is very important to them; 78% of parents of elementary youth feel this way.
  • In 2015, Seattle teachers included recess equity in their bargaining agreement. Teachers asked for 45 minutes of recess per day for all elementary school students, because the schools receiving the least recess time also had the highest rates of low-income youth. (Even so, some King County school wellness policies do not address recess at all.)

Unfortunately, focus on academics takes away time from PE and recess, and educators face numerous barriers to providing physical activity they agree is important.

  • Parents are aware of pressures educators face to decrease time for PA in favor of academics. One parent explained, “there is so much emphasis on high-stakes test prep that middle schoolers are deprived of time to move their bodies, which, ironically, could help them focus better in classes.” 
  • Elementary school principals agree. One principal we spoke to wishes he could provide more time for PA and free play during the school day, but he expressed that “achievement scores have been more and more important to funding, and focus on physical activity has gone away.” 
  • This echoes voices from school-based leaders nationwide, who name a crowded school curriculum, low number of PE specialists, and lack of financial resources as other barriers to PA provision (Hills et al., 2015).


Youth with disabilities face unique challenges, even when they have an opportunity to take PE.

  • Some youth are not afforded PA opportunities even in school. In a State of Play: Seattle-King County focus group, youth with disabilities described exclusion from PE. One young girl explained, “In PE, they try to let me participate, but usually I’m just playing tag and I get tagged first and then I have to sit out.” 
  • Instructors often lack training in how to instruct youth with disabilities, and parents explain that schools often give them the option of waiving their child out of PE rather than identifying ways that child can participate. 

Empowering schools to be a hub for physical activity takes many forms.


State of Play: Seattle-King County has identified ways the education system can address many inequities in PA rates. However, unfunded mandates for schools already lacking adequate financial support are unrealistic. Investments from regional partners, policy support, and an ideological transformation about the benefits of PA on academic success and emotional and physical well-being are vital to make these large-scale changes. 

  • The King County Play Equity Coalition: The Coalition will spearhead solutions that include requiring statewide standards on recess, reporting nonacademic measures of success that supplement existing school quality indicators, and piloting a school-based PA coordinator with the single goal of ensuring that all students meet the CDC’s guidelines of 1 hour of PA each day. 
  • Developments in Washington State: State officials are also implementing a new policy that requires an annual review of PE programs in order to begin addressing some of the issues outlined above. 
  • Movement breaks: Research also supports regular movement breaks during the school day to promote increased overall rates of physical activity. One example of this in practice is Move to Improve, a classroom-based physical activity program designed by the New York City Department of Education and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which supports teachers in professional development by training them to implement brief, structured fitness breaks into their curriculum. 
  • Lunch and recess: Lunch and recess breaks are valuable periods for physical activity, but many youth, particularly females, still spend these breaks sedentary. Researchers suggest that supportive school policies, the provision of playground markings and changes to the school physical environment can serve as steps to increase rates of physical activity during recess and other breaks (Hills et al., 2015).


Some programs in King County are already harnessing time during and after school to provide low-cost or free programming: 

  • The Daily Mile. The Sports Institute at UW Medicine partnered with Highline School District to pilot this low-cost intervention started in the UK; students leave the classroom to jog or run at their own pace for 15 minutes per day.
  • Cascade Bicycle Club’s Major Taylor Project: The project reaches more than 500 youth annually in King and Pierce County, empowering them through after-school bicycling clubs. 
  • Soccer for Success - Washington Youth Soccer Foundation: This free after-school program focuses on physical activity, mentorship, nutrition and family engagement for youth in low-income, urban communities.
  • Skate Like a Girl: This program headquartered in Seattle provides after-school programming, all gear necessary and a customizable curriculum while teaching confidence, resilience, leadership, and empowerment, all through the sport of skateboarding.


How can you help?

Stakeholder groups across the county can empower schools to provide quality physical activity to students throughout the day in a number of ways. Some examples of this include:

  • Parents/guardians: Consider how your school’s PTA could support increased physical activity. Create a green schoolyard, or run a floor hockey club or yoga class before or after school.
  • Business & industry: Donate overstock equipment to a centralized group for distribution to schools to support a wider range of physical activity.
  • Policymakers: Support schools to offer low-cost or no-cost interscholastic or intramural sports participation. 

Find out more ways to take action in your community. 





  • Aspen Institute (2019). State of Play Seattle-King County Analysis and Recommendations. Retrieved from
  • Hills, A. P., Dengel, D. R., & Lubans, D. R. (2015). Supporting public health priorities: recommendations for physical education and physical activity promotion in schools. Progress in cardiovascular diseases, 57(4), 368-374.
  • Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). (2010). The State of Play: Gallup Survey of School Principals on Recess. Fenton Communications. San Francisco, CA.