As a new school year begins, the state of American education is uncertain. Some schools have insisted on reopening, with mixed results, others are sticking with remote learning, while still others are offering a hybrid of the two. And even in places where in-person classes are happening, many parents are choosing to keep their kids home or creating “learning pods” with other families. All of which means that caregivers are once again facing the impossible task of acting as parent, breadwinner, and teacher—all at once.
With so much pressure to make sure our kids aren’t falling behind in academics, it can be easy to overlook an equally vital part of the school day: physical education. “It’s overwhelming for everybody,” acknowledges Eva Duce, a middle school PE teacher in Durango, Colorado. “I don’t want gym class to be one more thing families have to check off. But I also want to make sure kids get their heart rates up every day.”
That’s because daily exercise not only helps kids stay physically and emotionally healthy, it also boosts cognitive function. When schools closed in the spring, Duce assigned regular outdoor cardio, like walking, hiking, or biking, as well as weekly challenges—one asked students to video themselves doing ten push-ups, with bonus points for creativity (an enterprising student did his push-ups with a chicken on his back). She also asked students to choose a skill and practice it regularly. One kid took up slacklining. Another worked at yoga. Duce herself learned to do a wheelie on her bike and shared videos of her learning process.
But not every kid has a fun, dedicated PE teacher—or any PE teacher at all. So we put together a creative, Outside-inspired PE curriculum to get you through the fall semester. It’s far from exhaustive, but with one activity a week for 15 weeks, it’s a solid foundation.
Week 1: Get on Your Bike and Ride
It was hard to find a bike this summer; retailers around the country have been sold out for months. But cycling’s soaring popularity also means that more families have bikes on hand. So whether you’re new to the sport or have been biking for years, your assignment this week is to go for a neighborhood ride, tackle some singletrack, or simply teach your kid how to ride a bike. Or, if they’re already an advanced rider, have them practice a skill like doing a wheelie or launching off a small jump.
Week 2: Swim for Fitness
It’s still warm, so get one last swim in before it’s too late. Outdoor pools that are uncrowded or that limit the number of swimmers are relatively safe spaces in the pandemic; the CDC says there’s no evidence that COVID-19 can be spread through recreational waters. But our favorite way to enjoy the fun and exercise of swimming is an outdoor swimming hole. You can find options in every state with this free online map.
Week 3: Dig in the Dirt
Ask any farmer or gardener and they’ll confirm that a few hours of hauling dirt, pulling weeds, and pushing seeds into soil is as exhausting as a gnarly mountain-bike ride. And eating homegrown food is good for your health. So sign up for a community garden space, turn over a backyard bed, or mount some planting boxes on your windows and get going. Late summer is a good time to start garlic for the springtime harvest, as well as cool-weather crops like kale, chard, broccoli, beets, and peas. If you don’t want to grow your own food, many small farms are still harvesting summer’s bounty and will trade fresh produce for a few hours of labor.
Week 4: Give Back
We know you’ve gone on 40 zillion walks since the pandemic started. So why not mix it up by volunteering to walk dogs at your local animal shelter? Or, if dogs aren’t your thing, opt to clean up trash, repair trails, or collect data for a citizen-science project. Either way, you’ll get a workout while helping your community.
Week 5: Nurture a Naturalist
It’s the heart of fall, which means migratory birds are flying from their summer homes to their winter habitat. Download an app like eBird or iNaturalist (or pick up a printed field guide) and turn your neighborhood stroll into a bird-watching expedition. Audubon has a great primer on how to get kids stoked on birding. You can also apply the same principles to other animal or plant life such as mushrooms, bugs, or reptiles and amphibians.
Week 6: Build a Fort
Last month I wrote about how building an outdoor fort can give kids a sense of security and purpose in these uncertain times. What I didn’t mention is that running around the woods looking for sticks, hauling rocks around a desert or coastal environment, or even just dragging chairs and blankets to the backyard can also get kids’ heart rates up while keeping them engaged for hours.
Week 7: Embrace Badminton
When I reached out to parents and teachers for this column, I was surprised by how many (three out of twelve!) recommended badminton. All you need are two people (spaced several feet apart, making it a great socially distanced sport), an affordable set with a net, rackets and shuttlecock, and a bit of enthusiasm to make up for your lack of skill. In the same vein, you can get a table-tennis set for around $30 that turns any household table into the site of epic Ping-Pong tournaments.
Week 8: Go Fly a Kite (or Throw a Frisbee)
Windy fall days are perfect kite-flying weather. Less windy days are great for Frisbee. Pick one (or both) and head to a field, beach, or park with some space to run.
Week 9: Take an Online Yoga Class
Slow things down and help your child focus and find a sense of balance with an online yoga class. We like this short, simple class from Do Yoga With Me for kids under age five; these energetic, themed videos from Cosmic Kids Yoga for kids under six; and this Yoga With Adriene class for teens.
Week 10: Jump Rope
Jumping rope is rad. You can do it inside or out, it’s a great workout, and it encourages coordination (and team skills when two people swing the rope for a jumper). Plus, kids of all ages love it. Up your jump-rope game by learning how to double Dutch. Learn how via these illustrated instructions or this video.
Week 11: Climb On
By this point in your home-school semester, you probably feel like climbing the walls. So why don’t you? A box of 20 kid-friendly climbing holds and hardware costs around $40 on Amazon. Mount them on the wall in your kiddo’s bedroom, or build a backyard climbing wall like this one. If you have trails or open space nearby, scaling small boulders works, too. For smaller kids, try dragging a mattress out of the bedroom, propping it against a couch, and encouraging your little ones to scramble to the “peak” at the top.
Week 12: Create Fun Outdoor Intervals
Interval training is great for both cardiovascular health and muscle building, but there’s one problem: it’s boring. Duce suggests going outside and incorporating whatever props you find—jumping on and off a curb, practicing push-ups against a rock, or doing dips from a bench. Give each “station” a silly name, race between them, and boom—an exercise routine becomes a fun game.
Week 13: Master a New Skill
Whether your child wants to learn how to dribble a soccer ball, shoot a three-pointer, master a yoga pose, climb a tree, imitate a TikTok dance, juggle, skateboard, Rollerblade, slackline, or complete a pull-up, this is the week to choose a new skill and practice it daily. Sharing their progress via video with a friend or family member can be a way to stay motivated and add an element of creativity.
Week 14: Plan Ahead
At some point, this pandemic will end. And when it does, there will be soccer camps and bike races and 5Ks and family vacations and every other activity we’ve been missing. So our assignment for this week is to sit down with your kid and figure out what physical activities they’re most excited about—then start planning for a future event they can look forward to. Do they want to learn to surf? Have them research surfing camps, and spend winter break honing their core strength. Are they excited about backpacking? Choose a route to tackle when this is over, and start carrying a loaded pack up and down the stairs.
Week 15: Dance
You did it! You made it through the semester! Time to celebrate with a dance party. Whether your kid likes hip-hop, Zumba, or just bopping around the living room to some Disney tunes, there’s an online dance class that will get them sweating. Bonus points if you join in.
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