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Sports for everyone, plus team competition encouraged

''The thrust of physical education has been completely backwards,'' exclaims Brenda Johnson, who teaches physical fitness to undergraduates at Boston University. The emphasis has been on teaching sports and games, but that is the wrong approach to physical fitness, she says. ''You don't play sports to get fit , you play sports after you're fit.''

Ms. Johnson says that it's time to realize that competitive sports ''benefit maybe 30 percent of the people. But the ones who need the most practice are the ones who sit out, and some people consistently experience failure.'' In order for people to develop a lifelong interest in physical fitness, physical education must be fun.

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In response to this need, many schools and institutions are rethinking their physical education programs. The goal is to make physical activity something that everyone wants to participate in, something to be enjoyed throughout life.

The two main priorities of this new movement are to include people and to challenge people. Another goal of these fitness educators is to convince us that play is not a useless way to spend our free time.

Project Adventure, Project ACTIVE, and New Games are among the alternatives to traditional sports instruction that are gaining acceptance.

Project Adventure, being used nationwide, is a public school version of the Outward Bound program. It stresses teamwork and problem solving.

Project ACTIVE (All Children Totally InVolved Exercising) is an exercise program designed to help all children live up to their full potential. Stressing individual attention and a personalized curriculum, it has been used with children pre-kindergarten to grade 12. It has been applied to slow-learners, gifted students, and everyone in between. It's being used in 550 school districts in 38 states.

New Games is both an organization and a philosophy. The New Games Foundation promotes alternative group games that are cooperative rather than competitive. They have flexible rather than fixed rules, and promote participation, creativity, and group cohesiveness.

The focus is on potential rather than limitations. Approximately 6,000 public school teachers have taken New Games training courses.

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Much of the responsibility for initiating this change now lies with the colleges. ''There's been a reawakening of the need for colleges to prepare physical educators to a different philosophy,'' says Dr. John Cheffers, professor of education at Boston University. ''It's a painful process, but it's been bringing about results.''

He'd like to see the change come as a flood, but says he's content to wait for positive results to trickle down from the schools and colleges that are instituting new programs.

Ms. Johnson is less optimistic. She says that, although progressive issues and assessments are discussed at conferences, ''the turnaround time in education is forever!''

Dr. Gerald Thane, director of leisure studies activities at Boston University , stresses that even with a change of emphasis, the responsibility for successful programs still lies with the fitness instructor. ''There is as much need for protecting the students, both from physical harm as well as from failure, in these adventure activities as in elitist sports.''

But it's too soon to stop dribbling that basketball. This shift in emphasis isn't signaling the end of the road for varsity sports. Instead more students are gaining a greater appreciation of the competitive sports, without being overburdened by an emphasis on their personal performance.

Dr. Cheffers says ''young people are discovering more diverse talents, and because they're taking part in physical activities for longer in school, you actually discover latent talent and you actually improve the position of elitist sport.''

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