Exploring Physical Education in Canada

Physical Education in Canada


This blog series seeks to explore how Physical Education is designed and practised in countries around the world. The intention is to give insight and hopefully inspiration to help improve it for all young people, both now and for the future.

If you have insight from a country we have not yet covered, then we would love to hear from you, please get in touch.

UNESCO published its ‘Quality Physical Education’ (QPE) guidelines for policymakers back in 2017. It includes a great video clip and infographic identifying some of the wide range of benefits of QPE and the following extract reminding us that PE is not just a nice to have in education, it is a human right for all children and young people!

“Every human being has a fundamental right of access to physical education and sport, which are essential for the full development of his personality. The freedom to develop physical, intellectual and moral powers through physical education and sport must be guaranteed both within the educational system and in other aspects of social life.”

The UNESCO Charter of Physical Education and Sport (1978)

Building on from that, here is what was said in 2013 and subsequently by WHO:

“Physical education is the most effective means of providing all children and youth with the skills, attitudes, values, knowledge and understanding for lifelong participation in society.”

The Declaration of Berlin 2013, UNESCO’s World Conference of Ministers for Sport

“Physical education programs lay the foundation for lifelong active living, enhance health and well-being, and help to prevent and/or reduce future health problems.”

– The World Health Organization

In addition, if you have not yet accessed UNESCO’s latest guidance document calling for investment in QPE to support COVID-19 recovery then please take a look by clicking here

Exploring Canada

PHE Canada

In Context

As I am sure all readers are well aware, Canada is one of 23 countries in North America where it shares its borders with the United States. Canada is inhabited by almost 38 million people over nearly 10 million km2.This makes its total population smaller than that of California who squeeze into just 424,000 km2 (4% of the land mass). However, don’t be mistaken, it is still the 38th largest country in terms of population, has nearly doubled in population in the last 60 years and most of its population live in Ontario and Quebec which have population densities higher than several European countries.

Canada is officially a bilingual country where the official languages are English and French. Canada is a federation of 10 provinces and three territories (Nunavut, Yukon, Northwest Territories). Under Canadian Constitution, provincial governments have exclusive responsibility for all levels of education. There is a Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) which is an intergovernmental body. Each of these provinces, for example Ontario which stretches north from Niagara Falls and has a population of nearly 15 million people, has independent governance and hence expectations around Physical and Health Education which will be explored more later. The six largest cities are Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa.

The education system in Canada consists of elementary schooling, secondary schooling and post-secondary schooling. School attendance is mandatory until the age of 16 in all provinces except for Manitoba, Ontario, and New Brunswick where the required age is 18. Kindergarten is available to children when they turn four in Ontario and Quebec and when they turn five everywhere else. The academic year generally runs from August through June of the following year. As of 2018/19 there were 4.92 million students enrolled in all elementary and secondary schools.

According to Statistics Canada there are approximately 15,500 schools. This consists of about 10,100 elementary schools (for ages 6-12 in Grades 1-6), 3,400 secondary/ high schools (for ages 12-18 up until Grade 12) and 2000 K-12 schools. There is an average of 350 students per school but as with other countries this varies considerably. The provinces with large populations such as British Columbia and Alberta tend to dictate the curriculum and examination decisions of neighbouring provinces in that territory.

Most Canadian provinces and territories engage in provincial assessments for schools, which are designed to provide a snapshot of student performance in key areas (Reading, Writing, Mathematics) and can help to monitor key outcomes of the education system. They are highly controversial because of how the data is interpreted, utilized and publicized. Depending on the province, students are assessed in either Grades 3, 6, and 9 or Grades 4, 7, and 10. Most provincial exams are developed locally and are unique to each respective province and their related adjacent territories in ‘core’ academic areas in either Grades 10, 11, and/or 12 with test scores counting towards final course grades which impact college admissions. There is no provincial examination for physical education, this comes with positives and negatives.

In Policy

Curriculum development and reform tends to be an 8-10 year cycle. It is a collaboration led by the Ministry of Education but often written by teachers with subject area expertise. The real art is communicating an ambition and intent for the subject that can make it through the editing process and retain the essence of what was meant, in a way that can be understood and acted upon by generalists in elementary schools right through to PE specialists at secondary. As a consequence of socio-political influence at the time of writing, there is often a bias or agenda that can also contribute towards a potential loss in translation or adjustment to language/ priorities that can have significant knock on effect. This is not unique to Canada. For example, the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games had a significant impact on the aims of the national curriculum in England. Similarly in BC, the 2006 K-7 PE curriculum took on a flavor to support the upcoming 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.

As highlighted earlier, each of the 10 territories have their own curriculum goals and requirements. This is quite different to other countries around the world but does enable some tailoring to better suit local contexts and, in a similar way to the UK where England, Scotland and Wales all have independent governance of education, there are often a lot of similarities in practice. Some subjects, for example mathematics, have a pan-Canadian consortium to standardise policy guidance but that is not the case for physical education.

Physical and Health Education (PHE) Canada (formally the Canadian Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance – CAHPERD) is a membership driven organisation that seeks to support, represent and influence the place of PHE across the whole country. This has been to a greater and lesser extent across history and geographical regions where provincial associations also exist. Their push for daily PE materialised as 30 minutes a day (or 150 minutes a week) of PE for all students in the 1970’s and 1980’s but the reality for elementary schools was typically more like two to three 30-45 minute sessions per week at best.

PHE Canada provide a useful summary table as follows:

Province or TerritoryPE and Daily Physical Activity (DPA) Time Requirements
British Columbia and YukonPE – No longer specific time recommendations with the new K-9 or 10 curriculum. DPA – The Daily Physical Activity Policy states 30 minutes of PA per school day.
Alberta and Northwest TerritoriesPE – No longer specific recommendations for physical education. DPA – The Policy states 30 minutes of PA for grades 1-9.
SaskatchewanPE – Grade 1-8 are required to have 120-150 minutes of physical education per week (still dependent on school division). Grades 9-10 are required to have 150 minutes of physical education per week.
Manitoba and NunavutPE – Daily Physical Education required for Grades K-10 at 30 minutes each day. More details on breakdown can be viewed at this link: https://www.edu.gov.mb.ca/k12/cur/ physhlth/c_overview.html
OntarioPE – There are no mandated minutes for PE, only guidelines. The recommended guideline is 150 minutes per week. DPA – The Daily Physical Activity Policy states 20 minutes per day for grades K-8.
QuebecPE -Grades 1-6 are required to have 120 minutes of physical education per week. Secondary students are required to have 100 minutes of physical education in a six day cycle or 150 minutes in a nine day cycle.
New BrunwickPE – Grades K-5 are required to have 30 minutes of physical education 3 days/week (total 90 mins/week). Grades 6-8 are recommended to have 150 minutes of physical education per week. Grades 9-10 have 3 blocks of physical education of 45 hrs over the 2 years.
Nova ScotiaPE – Grades K-2 are required to have 20 minutes of physical education per day, Grade 3 is required to have 30 minutes per day, and Grades 4-6 are required to have 20 minutes per day.
Prince Edward IslandPE – Grades K-6 are required to have 75 minutes of physical education per week or 90 minutes per 6-day cycle. Grades 7-9 are required to have 60-90 minutes of physical education per week or 72- 108 minutes per 6-day cycle.
Newfoundland & LabradorPE – Grades K-3 physical education is recommended to have a portion of 30% of instruction time, at administrator’s discretion, as part of an integrated approach with other specialized subjects. Grades 4-6 is 6% recommended physical education time, and therefore also site based. Grade 7-9 is recommended 6% of instructional time. High School requires 2 credits (i.e., 1 year).

Source: https://phecanada.ca/about/physical-and-health-education-curriculum-canada

Half the provinces are now PHE or HPE with only Saskatchewan, Quebec, New Brunswick, Newfoundland & Labrador, Prince Edward Island just PE.

The Ontario Curriculum is regarded by many as an example of best practice since its 2019 refresh. Consequently, we will now explore that further. The Health and Physical Education (PE) framework has a very holistic outlook that recognises the importance of wellbeing and the ability to learn. This can be seen in their ‘stepping stones’ model that illustrates the complexity of human development:

Physical Education in Canada

Source: http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/curriculum/elementary/2019-health-physical-education-grades-1to8.pdf

Mental health is an explicit aspect of learning intentions in HPE that can be seen as an integral part of Ontario’s HPE visions and goals statement:

“The health and physical education curriculum is based on the vision that the knowledge and skills students acquire in the program will benefit them throughout their lives and enable them to thrive in an ever-changing world by helping them develop mental health and well-being, physical and health literacy, and the comprehension, capacity, and commitment they will need to lead healthy, active lives and promote healthy, active living”.

The goals of the health and physical education program are as follows.

Students will develop:

  • the social-emotional learning skills needed to foster overall health and well-being, positive mental health, and the ability to learn, build resilience, and thrive;
  • the skills and knowledge that will enable them to enjoy being active and healthy throughout their lives, through opportunities to participate regularly and safely in physical activity and to learn how to develop and improve their own personal fitness;
  • the movement competence needed to participate in a range of physical activities, through opportunities to develop movement skills and to apply movement concepts and strategies in games, sports, dance, and various other physical activities;
  • an understanding of the factors that contribute to healthy development, a sense of personal responsibility for lifelong health, and an understanding of how living healthy, active lives is connected with the world around them and the health of others.
  • the knowledge and skills acquired in health education and physical education form an integrated whole that relates to the everyday experiences of students and provides them with the physical literacy and health literacy they need to lead healthy, active lives.

Source (page 6): http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/curriculum/elementary/2019-health-physical-education-grades-1to8.pdf

Physical Literacy and Health Literacy form significant components of the curriculum as can be seen by this excellent infographic:

Source (page 10): http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/curriculum/elementary/2019-health-physical-education-grades-1to8.pdf

As we know, physical literacy “has become a core concept to physical educators and all those working in the spheres of physical activity, sport and recreation… physical literacy is arguably the single most important outcome of a quality physical education programme.” However, perhaps physical educators are too focused on unlocking the movement competence door (see graphic below) when increased attention to the psychological doors may in fact provide significantly bigger positive impact on attitudes and behaviours around physical activity and/ or sport.

Physical Literacy

(Young, 2019)

There is a need for “knowledge mobilization among provincial and territorial curriculum policy designers, researchers and communities“ which “would introduce a dialogue that would encourage an examination of the need for approaches to PE policies that are complex, inclusive and empowering.” Thomson, D., & Roberston, L. (2014). In other words, it is important we also consider how articulation of the curricula is supported to ensure thorough understanding and ability to bring it to life in schools. This requires a focus on professional development.

In Practice

Absent of a national curriculum and district support, how physical education teachers interpret their local curricula results in a lottery approach to what students receive in physical education instruction.

In elementary schools HPE is typically taught by a ‘generalist’ teacher who provides learning in all curricular areas. These generalists tend to offer either a very game/ sport based model with minimal instruction or a decontextualised focus on manipulative skill development to no formal instruction at all, simply mass recreation & physical activity. It has been described to me as ‘break’ time for the classroom teacher! As with many countries, facility development has been a significant limiting factor on the quality and range of HPE provision in many schools. Most elementary schools have the equivalent of a three-badminton court sized gym regardless of the size of the school so programming facilities can be a big challenge both within curricular time and for extra-curricular opportunities. Elementary students physical education experiences are a far cry from Daily Physical Education as most schools provide on average, 2-3 classes per week ranging in time from 30-45 minutes per class.

Secondary/ High School provision is almost always delivered by PE specialists (who also teach a second subject) and a department who were historically focused on developing sporting talent of young people – in some cases signposting them to specialist sports academies (e.g. Hockey Canada, Softball Canada, Basketball Canada, etc) or sport schools (e.g. Rugby, Soccer, Baseball, Golf, Lacrosse, etc) but this is not widespread but gaining traction. That said, this largely comes from the school sport system fuelled by voluntary coaches (teachers and from the local community) rather than curriculum HPE. As most high schools in Canada operate a two-semester year where students opt for 4 courses per semester, it is very possible for students to get HPE every day for one semester then no HPE for the remainder of the academic year. Some provinces have overcome this by combining maths or another subject and PhysEd to enable those classes to run every other day all year. This is determined school by school in various school boards across Canada. Outside of that there is a real need for the extra-curricular programme to be wide ranging, inclusive and accessible by all.

As physical literacy has been a common language across Canada for quite some time, albeit with differing and evolving definitions, prioritising healthy active lifestyles and broader educational outcomes than mere sporting success are commonplace. PE supervisors used to work across the district to support, mentor and inspire curriculum implementation. This programme was considered very successful, was especially valuable at elementary where HPE expertise was more limited, and led to the development of all sorts of tools for learning through the network of PE.

Physical education can build skills in children, inspire them to act, and to build in them a sense of competence that can be applied to other areas of life. One of the most challenging aspects in our field is Assessment and Evaluation because there is no textbook or teachers’ guide and the only standardized tests available are fitness tests. We know past generations have less than fond memories of fitness testing as a result of inappropriate practices that have likely turned them off physical activity.

The foundation for fitness testing should be the promotion of enjoyable and regular physical activity participation leading toward the eventual development of life-long physical activity behaviors. The goal of fitness testing, and testing in general, is to provide useful personal information regarding lifestyle, to improve personal performance, diagnose a deficiency, and/or determine effectiveness of training programs. This is what triggered the development of the ABC Fit, a fitness skills assessment developed by our very own blog contributor Glenn Young, within the Passport for Life, which is an overall assessment of your Physical Education program developed by many PE teachers and researchers through PHE Canada.

Canada has come a long ways from the militaristic approach of the early 19th century progressing through a more humanistic and holistic approach through mid-century aided by the movement education approach brought over from the UK after WW II. The movement-based curriculum evolved to developing the whole child (i.e. physical, social, and cognitive) which provided the base conceptual framework for PE curricula today.

In Conclusion

In Canada the curriculum design for physical education doesn’t vary much from the following five pillars:

  1. Fundamental Movement Skills
  2. Fitness
  3. Affective domain focus (e.g. SEL – social-emotional learning)
  4. Games
  5. Dance, gymnastics and individual activities

Some provinces are HPE which incorporates sex education, drugs awareness and other aspects of holistic health whereas others remain ‘pure’ PhysEd. There are strengths and limitations to both options. Unfortunately, physical education is pretty low on the pecking order of priorities for strategic direction, funding and prioritisation within the current education landscape in Canada and has been for some time.


  1. Curriculum reform needs percolation and wider stakeholder engagement. To be effective it is a lengthly 2-year process that requires input from practitioners and researchers with in-depth experience of what is needed by the next generation of young people and a skilled expert in curriculum writing to ensure it is interpreted correctly and navigates the editing process. It is also advantageous to formalise inter-provincial discussions in line with English and Maths.
  2. New curricula must expand beyond traditional sport-based perspectives.
  3. PE supervisors operating across districts to mentor and support curriculum implementation had a great impact but funding cuts have ended this centralised provision for now.
  4. Fitness and competency testing has a place in PE if data is used diagnostically and focus is on programme adaptation to suit needs of individuals.
  5. Quality Physical Education is much more important than Quantity of Physical Education. If we are not careful it can turn into mass recreation if facilities, staffing and programming do not manage this carefully. We all know the long lasting and damaging effect of negative experiences in PE so think carefully about demanding more time unless it can be utilised effectively.
  6. The pathway to change is through the teacher – we must invest in quality professional development and mentoring as a sustainable and scalable solution to improving PE provision. For example, establishing ‘master’ teacher positions and releasing them one or two days a week from their school on a sabbatical to support curriculum development across more schools locally would be highly effective.
  7. Recognising the place of PE as distinct from sporting talent identification &/ or development is important. Treating physical education and school sport as completely separate entities with clarity of the difference between them is important for all stakeholders.

If you have a different perspective to that described above or would like to contribute to a similar blog on a different country then we would love to hear from you. Please contact us.

About the authors

  • Will Swaithes – @WillSwaithes
  • Glenn Young – Educational Change and Healthy Living Consultant – @GlennYoung_PE
  • Ted Temertzoglou – Educator, Author, Teacher and Teacher Educator – @LifeIsAthletic

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