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Power Rangers and putt putt: Gym classes look different during a pandemic

Caroline and Gavin Wittlinger play basketball to get in their daily exercise. It's up to kids and their families to stay active now that gym classes are virtual.
David Wittlinger/Courtesy

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — For Erin Early, physical education teacher at Soda Creek Elementary School, physical education class looks like playing one-person volleyball in a green Power Ranger suit. Typically, gym class is hardwood floors, nets, pinnies, shrieks and high fives.

Due to country-wide school closures brought on by the spread of COVID-19, classes are happening on a screen. Educators who teach art, music and physical education have to get a little more creative to get their students a small portion of the material they typically would encounter at school.

So, Early and Strawberry Park Elementary physical education teacher Allie Sabat have teamed up to provide their students with videos. The videos walk students through exercises and activities, such as yoga for bikers, volleyball drills and one-minute challenges.

“It’s a way for other P.E. teachers to collaborate more than we have before,” Early said. “This experience has been a silver lining for sure — to collaborate with your fellow like-minded individuals. Allie and I have just had a blast working together.”

Virtual physical education classes are not required, as not everyone has the resources or equipment to participate. In order to reach and involve as many students as possible, the pair of teachers have gotten extremely creative.

The plastic bag challenge has been one of their biggest hits. Using a book, kids fan a plastic bag between two cones, or any other object, to score as many goals as they can in a minute. 

Early and Sabat each have their own online classroom, which is home to all the links to videos and assignments, as well as a Padlet page. Padlet is a form of social media that allows students to post photos, videos or a paragraph, showing what they’ve been doing to stay in motion.

The middle school program, taught by Chris Adams, looks slightly different. He too has a weekly lesson plan but gives his students options. 

“The challenge is kids don’t have any equipment at home to do a ton of stuff, so we’ve got to adapt to not having any equipment,” Adams said. “Also, when the weather is not so good, what do we give to the kids that they can do inside?”

Next week, which is projected to be chilly, he’s asking his students to design, construct and play a putt-putt golf hole. That is the one requirement. The rest of the week, they have to choose one of 17 other options to complete each day. The activities are divided into six categories including dance, mindfulness, outdoor adventures and family activities.

“It’s definitely less exercise than what we would have been doing in school,” said Anna Rushton, an eighth-grader at Steamboat Middle School. “But he’s giving us fun challenges and videos to watch that we can do. Then we record ourselves and send it to our class.”

Soda Creek and Strawberry Park elementary gym teachers Allie Sabat and Erin Early have teamed up to provide their students with fun videos with activities and exercises. With schools closed, students rely on videos and websites to learn now, which is particularly challenging for class such as art, music and gym.

Still missing something

Of course, no matter how many options students are given and regardless of how creative each activity is, young students are still missing out on the social and team aspects of physical education classes.

“That’s one major thing they’re missing is that social piece — that interaction, that connection that we’re not getting because of social distancing,” Adams said.

It’s not just students missing their fellow students either. The teachers miss the students, and surely, students miss their teachers as well. 

“I miss those kids and being around them and the energy that they bring,” Sabat said. “I even miss the little behavioral things that happen in class. I never thought I’d miss that, but I do.”

Sabat has formed a new connection though as she and Early work together to brainstorm and produce ideas.  

“She’s become one of my best friends, because she’s the only other person I see besides my husband and kids,” Sabat said. “It’s been really cool to be able to do that with her and present this as a Steamboat thing versus just ‘our’ school and ‘your’ school.’”

Elena Rossi, an eighth grader at Steamboat Middle School, said she’s been Facetiming her friends more to make up for the lack of social interaction that she used to get in school, especially in gym class.

“What I miss most is it’s a very social class,” she said. “All your friends are in that class, and there’s 15 minutes of open gym in the beginning and you can do whatever you want with them. … It’s kind of sad to not be seeing them.”

Adams meets with his middle schoolers once a week through Google Hangouts as a live class and check-in. Early and Sabat are starting to implement live classes too, starting next Wednesday with a group of fifth-graders. 

Gavin Wittlinger, a fifth-grader at Soda Creek, said he loves P.E. class, particularly, medic ball, which is like dodgeball, but each team have “medics” that can heal players who have been hit. 

While he hasn’t been able to play that, he has been playing basketball with his older sister Caroline and shooting pucks at his hockey net on top of all the activities that Early and Sabat have been suggesting. 

The Wittlingers have developed a nightly family ritual of playing knee hockey, too. 

Rather than wallow over the lack of team sports, Early has tried to emphasize to her students how great it is they get to spend time with their families. 

“That’s maybe the biggest component that’s missing, but we’ve been able to spin that and talk about the family connection,” she said. “And that’s a team in itself.”

A parent’s perspective

The first time David Wittlinger saw his 10-year-old son Gavin watching a workout video, he assumed his son had looked it up, and it was a random video that anyone could find on the internet. 

“I was really impressed that the P.E. teachers are actually producing their own vidoes versus ‘oh hey, here’s a link to a workout from home’ kind of video, because I see a lot of those,” David said. “It was just really cool to see they’re putting in the effort to record their own videos.”

Alex Hall, a third-grader at Soda Creek, loves gym class. 

“I liked that Coach Early explains things really well, and she made it so we weren’t just doing workouts but doing it in a fun way,” he said.

Even now that he takes physical education through a computer, he said Early still does all the same things. And like many others, Alex and his mother Robin enjoyed the plastic bag challenge. 

“We can’t thank the teachers enough for everything they’re doing,” Robin said. “It literally brings a tear to our eyes as parents. It gives us a whole new respect for everything they do every day and how they’ve been able to react so quickly to this and find joy and bring the kids joy. It’s been really powerful to watch.”

To reach Shelby Reardon, call 970-871-4253, email sreardon@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @ByShelbyReardon.


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