Physical Education + Physical Therapy

Today, I want to talk about another very important part of the educational process… physical education (PE). Back in my early school days, PE was one of the favorite parts of my day, a time in which we had a break from our desks and classroom work. A time in which we played games and were able to interact with our peers in that loud, silly way kids often do. I’m sure you all lovingly remember PE like I do. Talking to different people I’ve met, many of them did not have the same experience with PE that I did and don’t remember it quite as fondly. Unfortunately, this is the case for many kids. PE, while a phenomenal concept, intended to teach children gross motor skills and body awareness, can often be discouraging for children especially with physical or cognitive impairments. This is where school-based PTs come in! Part of our role is to assist & facilitate participation in PE.

However, before we get into the specifics about how this is done let’s talk about the basics of PE. Different states have different curricula however generally the goals or objectives of the class are relatively similar. To give y’all a concrete example here is the link to North Carolina’s Essential Standards for Physical Education ( 

Now how do PE teachers typically structure their classes to include these objectives? Kids learn best through play, thus PE teachers typically plan games or activities. On gorgeous days they may take the kids outside for free play on the playground. Remember don’t forget to check out Sensory Paths™ Outdoor Sensory Stencils for those days when PE involves free play outside on the playground or their Learning Noodles for a great indoor PE option!

Ultimately, the purpose of PE is to teach children various gross motor movements, encourage the development of body awareness, improve strength & coordination, improve the ability to motor plan & sequence multi-step activities, improve direction following, expose them to sports activities & their rules, and to encourage a love of physical activity & health which hopefully carries over into adulthood. Sounds familiar, right? These are many of the same overall goals school-based physical therapists have for the kids they see. 

So how do school-based PTs help with PE? We can help in a variety of different ways whether that is by attending PE with the child, assisting the PE teacher in developing an adapted curriculum, or by working on some of the same skills that they are learning in PE during our therapy sessions. I have attended PE with many children who receive physical therapy services to either physically assist them with performing the activity, to help modify the activity to where they can perform it with less assistance or independently, or if they don’t need modifications or assistance then to provide skilled cueing (visual, verbal, tactile) to assist them in coordinating or motor planning the activity correctly. 

Some children may have a difficult time participating in a regular PE class and may require an adapted class free of structured games or challenging activities. Not all PE teachers have a background in or training with children with unique & special needs. Thus, the school PT can assist them in coming up with appropriate activities or an adapted curriculum to better serve those children. Another way we can assist is by working on those specific PE skills during our separate therapy sessions instead of directly pushing into PE with the child. Sometimes if I am working with a child who tends to get easily distracted or if we are working on a skill that requires a little more concentration & coordination such as skipping or jumping rope we will work on that skill outside of PE. 

Furthermore, as I discussed in the Benefits of PT At School post, there has been a movement to involve pediatric school based PTs in the development of school programs, routines, and curricula to improve health, wellness, fitness, injury prevention, and obesity for all students (not just those who receive direct physical therapy services). As this movement continues to grow, my hope is that school-based PTs will be able to assist in more directly shaping the PE curriculum to improve these outcomes for all students.

Ultimately, PE is such an important part and often underrated part of a child’s education! There are many ways in which school-based physical therapists can assist & facilitate in improving access & participation for all children especially those with physical or mental/cognitive disabilities. Hopefully, this post sheds some light on PE in general, on school-based physical therapists methods of addressing participation in PE for kids with disabilities, on our goal for collaboration with school staff, such as the PE teacher, to appropriately shape & guide the curriculum to best support all students. 


Catherine C. Skelton, PT, DPT

Pediatric Physical Therapist 

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