When COVID-19 closed Washington schools in March, Matt Wood and other physical education teachers had to find ways to keep kids active and healthy.

Wood, who teaches K-5 students at Stafford Elementary in Tacoma, turned to various exercising and stretching videos online to share with students.

“Through that process, starting to make the lessons, I was finding that I couldn’t find all the things online that I wanted to be able to present,” said Wood, 33.

So he decided to start making his own.

What began as teaching stretches via screen turned into full-on animated videos as Wood became more familiar with creating content through iMovie and PowerPoint.

“I ended up making my own homemade green screen with PVC pipes from McLendon (Hardware) and sheets that I bought at JOANN Fabrics. And I just started kind of going from there,” Wood said.

Now, Wood has created eight videos using animations, even dressing up to play the part. In “Jurassic Parkour,” students make a run for it from dinosaurs. In “Turkey Trot,” students run in place while leaping over animated turkeys. In “Space Jump,” they try to avoid asteroids and aliens and interact with familiar monster characters in “Pumpkin Smash!”

Two of Wood’s sons, a seventh grader and a fourth grader in the Tacoma School District, pitch in on ideas. The videos range from 3 to 10 minutes and can take Wood 20 hours to make.

“As I figure out what I’m doing, the process speeds up a little bit, but it’s still not quick,” he said.

Wood says the videos help to get students engaged online.

“What I’m seeing with the kids to get more interaction is they really respond to video games and cartoons and other things that they recognize,” Wood said. “I think the more you can make exercise a game and fun for them, I think it makes them want to come back more.”

Getting students involved

The move to virtual teaching back in the spring was tough.

At first, the primary goal was to keep kids moving, said Mary Waterbly, instructional facilitator for Tacoma Public Schools.

“We worried if there’s too much screen time, it’s not healthy for them,” Waterbly said.

There wasn’t much of a game plan, Wood said.

“It was just ‘All right, you’re going virtual,’ and we had to try to come up with stuff on the fly,” Wood said. “And for specialists like PE and music, I think it was maybe a little bit more difficult because we didn’t have the structure set up at that time to be able to reach all the kids.”

The district offered technical support and options for lessons, but, Waterbly said, the teachers really took it upon themselves to come up with creative ideas.

“Our teachers are working so hard,” Waterbly said. “It doesn’t matter whether they’re a kindergarten teacher, PE, high school English — they are working so hard to make sure that the kids are cared for, that they are receiving the content that they need so that they’re not going to fall behind.”

Even so, attendance isn’t 100 percent.

“It’s not full attendance, but it’s a lot more than I had last year. Last year, I didn’t hear from very many kids at all. So that was really tough,” Wood said.

Rhianna Bedient, a health and fitness teacher at Whittier Elementary in Tacoma, said she feels her job is even more important now than prior to COVID-19 as students are learning how to keep healthy during a pandemic.

“These kids are literally sitting in front of their screens all day,” Bedient said. “So when they’re able to come to PE and push in their chair and stand up and move for the whole 30 minutes, that’s so valuable.”

While not animated like Wood’s, Bedient said she’s been creating videos for her students as well and incorporating games with items they can find around their households. One game uses balled-up socks and a paper plate, with the students using their feet to get the ball on the plate.

It hasn’t been easy, but Bedient said she feels students are showing up, being physically active and engaged, despite being online.

“I wouldn’t have pictured a year ago how my job could have been done virtually,” Bedient said.

Tools for the future

Using technology in PE classes isn’t a new idea.

Schools have used various software systems to track fitness and nutrition data.

In Tacoma, Wood has worked with technology in the past; sometimes playing “Just Dance” videos in the gym for his students.

The work amid the COVID-19 shutdown is much more involved.

Across the globe, health and fitness teachers have drummed up creative ways to go virtual.

Wood has connected with gym teachers in a Facebook group, from as far away as Pakistan, to get ideas.

“We’re just trying to make the best of what we have and make it work and try to connect with as many kids as possible and get as many kids involved and active as possible,” Wood said.

Wood hopes to be able to incorporate some of the virtual tools he’s learned when students are safely able to return back to school for in-person learning. One tool, called Lü, is an audio-visual system that projects games on the wall of a gym and allows students to interact by throwing balls at targets. It’s pricey — around $20,000 for the entire system — but it’s on Wood’s dream gym wish-list.

“It’s obviously something that I’d like to be able to look into doing in the future. Just because I think the more technology we can use, the better to keep kids interested and make it fun,” Wood said.

Bedient said that everyone might need a break from the screens for a while.

“I think that when we come back, the students — and the world — is going to value anything that’s not tech, too,” she said.

The Society of Health and Physical Educators, also called SHAPE America, views online physical education as “an alternative method of instruction to fit the needs of students” — not a replacement for face-to-face learning.

Wood is inclined to agree. For him, the hardest part of the pandemic has been not being able to see his students in person.

“I’m a PE teacher because I like working with kids and teaching them how to be fit and teaching them how to be healthy,” Wood said. “It’s hard to do that when they’re stuck at home, and when I’m stuck at home.”

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Allison Needles covers city and education news for The News Tribune in Tacoma. She was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest.

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