The short YouTube videos of kid-focused exercise routines and games that Thomas Gelardi would film in his basement after his family went to sleep took off after COVID hit. Within a year, his channel, PhysEdZone, had more than 10,000 subscribers.
Today, Gelardi, who teaches physical education at P.S. 173 in Fresh Meadows, Queens, has more than 20,000 subscribers, and his videos have been viewed more than 4.5 million times.
The inspiration for PhysEdZone came one pre-pandemic day when a school bake sale being held in the gym forced Gelardi to teach in a classroom. The room had a smartboard, so Gelardi searched the internet for follow-along dance videos. Watching the glee on his students’ faces pushed Gelardi to film his own easy-to-follow dance or fitness videos using his iPad and tripod.
“I thought, how fun would it be to dance along with your PE teacher? Just like that the PhysEdZone YouTube channel was created,” said Gelardi, a 16-year veteran teacher who recently won the New York State Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance 2022 PE teacher of the year award. “As I played the videos, students got a kick out of seeing me on the screen, they were laughing, smiling, and exercising at the same time. It was incredible and motivating.”
He already had about 25 videos on his channel when the pandemic closed schools. He had planned to assign them to students as homework and share them with his colleagues looking for brain breaks for their students. Then COVID hit, and he saw the videos as a way to help his students — and others — find fun ways to stay physically active while learning from home full time.
He knew that many kids wouldn’t have a lot of space or equipment, so he designed challenges to be easily accessible. His goal was to keep kids moving at a time when so many children were more sedentary.
The percentage of obese Americans between the ages of 2 and 19 jumped during the pandemic to 22%, up from 19% before the pandemic, according to a study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looking at data from 2018 through 2020.
“I am genuinely concerned about the amount of exercise and movement children are getting in general,” Gelardi said. “Only a very small number of children get the recommended 60 minutes of moderate or vigorous aerobic activity daily.”
But, he added, “When students see that you love teaching, it’s contagious, and their love for learning grows. Something as simple as exercising with my students, excites them to exercise more.”
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How and when did you decide to become a teacher?
I was studying exercise science at Manhattan College, playing soccer for their team, while working at a children’s gymnastics studio on the side, running classes and hosting parties. During my time at the gymnastics studio, parents complimented me on how much fun their child had in my class, how their child looks forward to coming and seeing me every week, and how much their child was learning.
As much as it honored me to hear this, I knew this had a lot to do with the fact that I am a big kid at heart. Children feed off my playful energy. I have been told on several occasions that children gravitate toward me when I am around.
So upon graduation, being the typical confused college graduate, I spoke to my Manhattan College career counselor Dr. Shawn Ladda. We discussed my job at the time, and that is when the lightbulb went off, and Dr. Ladda said elementary physical education! You can combine your passion and your talent for your career!
Tell me more about the inspiration for your YouTube channel and how it became so popular.
I decided to share these videos with other social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to offer new activities to fellow teachers who were in the same boat, trying to navigate this new norm of [remote] teaching.
Since we needed to bring PE to our students’ homes, I knew they may not have the equipment and space that we have in our schools. Some may have a basketball and not a soccer ball or some may have a big living room while others may have a small one. So with this in mind, I brainstormed and created standards based on at-home “PE minute-to-win-it” challenges using homemade equipment and using my basement space to show how these activities can be performed in small spaces. In doing so, this made the activities accessible to all.
Each challenge combines cardiovascular fitness exercises with gross motor skill development. As I began to share these videos on my channel, PE teachers from across the country were using them for their students. I went from just teaching my students at PS 173 to teaching children around the world.
What’s your most popular video and why do you think it resonated with so many people?
My most popular video is a Fitness/Dance workout to the Kidz Pop song called “Dance Monkey” with over 286,000 views. My students love the song. We worked together to create the dance steps and exercise movements.
When I shared the video with my students, they kept asking to replay it again over and over. Having them collaborate with me on it, I think, gives them a special connection to the song and video. Being that they loved it so much, I knew it was going to be a hit when I shared it with the world. The key is to keep the movements simple and dance with a ton of energy and enthusiasm.
I also saw that you’re on TikTok. What’s your experience on that platform been like?
After seeing how I was able to assist fellow PE teachers during COVID on YouTube, I found that I can use TikTok to inspire future PE professionals as well as first-year PE teachers.
Due to the pandemic, many young professionals didn’t receive in-person student teaching [and] mentoring experiences because everything was virtual. There is a big void that I felt I could help fill. On TikTok, I share an abundance of information — from PE games, PE hacks, to advice on time and behavior management.
The most important part of each video is my delivery of the content. I explain and demonstrate each activity as if I were teaching it to my students. In doing so, teachers can understand how to explain and demo it to their own classes.
Are you concerned about the amount of exercise and movement your students get?
I know for myself and fellow PE teachers, when we ask students what they are doing after school, the most common answers are: going on the computer, doing homework, watching TV, and playing video games. Sports and exercise come last on their priority list, which makes teaching them the importance of physical activity a challenge. It is a challenge that I am up for.
I love exposing my students to as many different physical activities as I can in a school year. The more exposure, the more chance there is that a student can find passion in something. That passion can drive my students into a lifetime of healthy habits like eating right and exercise.
What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your classroom?
COVID is still affecting my community and school. Many students are either out on quarantine or still participating in PE class with a mask on. Creating my YouTube channel with at-home challenges and dance/fitness workouts has been very helpful in getting my students to exercise at home and mask-free!
Tell us about your own experience with school and how it affects your work today.
It was the teachers that treated me with kindness, compassion, and respect that I remembered. The ones who made learning enjoyable and fun.
When students see that you love teaching, love their company, and are having fun, it’s contagious, and their love for learning grows. Teachers are role models. My students want to be like me, and I take pride in that. I often ride my bike to school wearing my safety helmet to motivate students to do the same. It is a great position to be in.
Amy Zimmer is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat New York. Contact Amy at email@example.com.