It may be summer, but 6-year-old Brittany Thornton is learning new things anyway--this week she mastered the jump rope in no time flat.
"Great, Brittany, that's wonderful!" shouts her instructor, Jean Flemion, who applauds loudly and then leans down to hug her.
Breathing hard with beads of sweat running down her face, Brittany smiles widely, enjoying the attention. Is she having fun? "Sorta. I'm real tired," she answers. But she says she is picking up a lot of new skills. "I've learned how to bounce the balls. I could never do that cause it always got away from me."
Brittany is one of 90 Orange County elementary school children enrolled in the Youth Fitness Camp at UC Irvine's Crawford Hall, the first of two free two-week sessions that began Monday and, if the sponsoring National Fitness Foundation has its way, will be the prototype for a string of such camps nationwide.
"We want this to be a model for fitness camps across the country," said former Los Angeles Rams Coach George Allen, who is chairman of the foundation and of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. Allen, who spoke at an inaugural ceremony Wednesday and read a congratulatory telegram from President Reagan, remembered that "when I was in school it was required to take an hour of (physical education) if you went out for a varsity sport. But now, because of budget cuts, it has been practically removed from the school system."
Olympic gymnast Mitch Gaylord, star of the movie "American Anthem," skier Suzie Chaffee and Dodger infielder Enos Cabell also attended Wednesday's gala opening ceremony.
To instructor Flemion, 39, a Thousand Oaks physical education teacher and self-admitted "PE zealot," the most important thing the camp will teach kids this summer is self-esteem.
"The idea is not to develop an all-star, but to develop a positive attitude, to really grow as an individual," he said after a quick jog across UCI's playing field. "If I know you can't do pull-ups, I'm not going to put you up there in front of the entire class and embarrass you. That's antiquated. I'd rather stress positive reinforcement."
To do that, Flemion and the other 14 instructors brought in from across the United States use exercises that may not, at first glance, seem to be real body-builders.
"Take something like the juggling," he suggested, pointing to a group of second-graders tossing colorful scarfs into the air and catching them again. "Almost everybody can do it. So you can seize upon that and say, 'All right, Tommy, can you show the whole class how to do that?' That may be the first time Tommy has been able to do something physical and feel proud about it."
Variety of Exercises
Other exercises for the participating students, in kindergarten through sixth grade, include wheelbarrow races, leapfrog, Hackeysack, balancing peacock feathers on their noses and an exercise called "scrambled eggs" that has the kids jumping and spinning in mid-air.
At the same time, observers can watch elementary school teachers trying the same tricks--and not all of them can balance a peacock feather all that well.
About 50 Orange County schoolteachers are participating in the free program, not just for the college credit they receive but to learn what to do with their own classes when PE time rolls around. According to National Fitness Foundation statistics, fewer than one in five elementary school teachers has received any training in physical education.
"Most teachers teach PE the way they learned it," said Kelly McWilliams, a sixth-grade teacher at College Park Elementary in Irvine. "Just throw out the kick ball and line 'em up."
Glorified Recess Period
The lack of structure, teachers said, has turned PE into a glorified recess period, and without well-thought-out programs, the kids are not receiving the training they should. Unlike those classes, the camp will send home a computerized "Fitness-gram" detailing personal strengths and weaknesses.
"In elementary school, I hated PE," recalled Carolyn Moore, 30, who will teach at Irvine's newest elementary school, Brywood, which opens this fall. "I was always the last one picked for all the teams, and I didn't want my kids to have to go through that, too. . . .
"For the longest time, it's just been, 'Go out and play a game,' and they don't get any real instruction. . . . PE was the reward for the day. 'If you're good today we'll let you go out for PE, and if you're noisy, we won't.' They used it as a punishment-reward system."
The problem, according to camp directors, is that in the rush to beef up academics in recent years, physical education has often been squeezed out. PE specialists are hard to find in elementary schools, and experts say that a person's fitness habits are established for the rest of life by the sixth grade.
"The kids are getting fat and sloppy," said one teacher at the camp who asked not to be named. "They're spending too much time watching TV and eating and not enough running and playing."