When can we play a game?

If we were to conduct a poll of the most asked question in PE gymnasiums all over the world I reckon this one would come out on top.

What I love about it is that it’s a great question and its a valid question.  And we want our students to be asking great questions don’t we?

Without going too deep into the traditional versus modern teaching  approaches in PE (there are far more qualified people than me for this, see @kellyAnnParry and @pilly66), it is definitely worth exploring the instructional models we use in games lessons and why we teach this way.

I’m talking here about the linchpins of our curriculum, Invasion games, central net games, striking and fielding and not so much the minor games stuff that we often play for wet lunch play and/or “end of term fun” (I speech mark this because shouldn’t the whole term be fun? Why just the end?)

Anyway back to the question….

I’ve watched (with some delight) lessons where the students ask their teacher this question, and the teacher has actually struggled to give a relevant, detailed, and frankly acceptable, reason for their answer, “we will get to a game at the end.” Is often their response?

Why? “Because that’s the way we do things.”

Being a curious fellow, I have also asked why and here is the most common response. “We do a warm up, then we focus on skill development for a bit so they have the tools and competence to be able to play a game. Then when we play the game we have the skills and techniques required to be successful.”

When in class, I usually have keys, a whistle (sometimes), my iPad and a scribbled-on clipboard. Clearly, in order to achieve the above I have been missing one critical piece of kit. A magic wand.

Picture this from a students perspective… a 60 minute PE lesson

1. Warm up (gets me warmed up, tick.)

2. Skill development (depending on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ it may improve my skills, so kind-of-a-tick.)

3. New and improved skills allow me to play effectively in a game (PROBLEM!)

If you haven’t guessed already, between point 2 and 3 is where the wand gets waved and the magic happens.

As much as teachers may not want to admit it the students are right. And while the students request may be more about fun and enjoyment than the theory, isn’t it interesting to consider how the two may be  linked? Remember students actually enjoy learning. Some of them don’t know this, but its true.

I said in my first blog that its not our job as teachers to relentlessly push skill and drill practice. Let me be clear on that. I concede that we have a duty to develop student’s skills and techniques as well as their understandings of the technical aspects of movements and actions.  However, the method by which we do this has to be connected to greater understanding of the games.

Also just to be clear, I am not suggesting that we simply pick sides, set up a pitch and shout play (a popular lesson plan a previous colleague of mine used to enjoy)

If we consider what we want our learners to ‘know and understand’, ‘be able to do’ and ‘be’  by the time they leave school then it has to be greater than “I can do a lay-up” or “I can hit a softball”. By putting the learner at the centre of games they can pick up these things along the way but they are not the main focus of what we are doing, rather a by-product of it.

If we are preparing them for participation in life long activity then imagine physically educated learners equipped with the capability to;

Connect to the purpose of games

Understand defensive and attacking principles

Implement strategies for success (and explain the ‘why’ of their decisions)

Analyse and problem solve

Modify theirs and their teams performance during a game based on the circumstances

By playing versions of, and situations from, the game more often this will happen. It will. We are educating their brain and their body. Provided we are there to monitor/ modify/ encourage/ provide quality feedback etc.

I had a great example of this recently when I had not even introduced the volleyball spike to a year 5 class and due to the time they spent ‘playing’ the students were spiking before I had taught them too. They were simply solving the next problem the game had presented. Another reminder that I only teach a fraction of what they actually  learn in my class.

The book Play with Purpose (by Shane Pill) is a change agent for anyone who is stuck in the skill and drill era of PE.  I’d suggest every PE dept staff base in the world should have a copy and it should be placed somewhat deliberately on certain teachers desks for perusal.

I encourage you to go forth and let your students play under conditions you have deliberately created to achieve what you want.

After a while the old question, “When can we play a game?” stops getting asked.  They know its coming just after you finish this warm up…

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4 thoughts on “When can we play a game?

  1. Ross, interesting post and great to see such an issue being tackled. Perhaps another response to the students is to create and design games (CDG) themselves. There is a rich body of literature on CDG, student-designed games and games-making. Proponents of such pedagogies include Peter Hastie and Ash Casey. I am also a huge believer in getting students to create their own sports equipment as part of this process as well. Thanks for the post.

    • Hi Trent,
      Thanks so much for the comment, glad you were moved to write back, I do appreciate any feedback on the blog. I’m a big supporter of games making and often feel like it fails to be given any serious time in the curriculum. I know of Ash Caseys work and will check out more on this now. Look forward to chatting again soon.

  2. HI Ross
    Interesting comments .. if our aim is to facilitate learning for all participants and to help each individual to ‘enjoy’ the game and become a more skilled player then it is important for teachers/coaches to clear on ‘what’ learning experiences they structure and ‘why’ they have chosen them. To do this it is critical to ‘analyse the activity’ to know which aspects of skilled play are important in the sport. (Many of the problems associated with traditional approaches to teaching games iare based on a limited understanding of the complex nature of ‘skilled play’.) Next determine the emphasis for the specific group you are working with. Then ‘sImply’ the activity to engage learners & ensure they have early success. ‘Shape’ the learning experience by manipulating key variables (ie space, equipment, numbers, ratio, rules) to create a specific learning environment. This is a key as it involves ‘teaching through the game’. ‘Focus’ the learning environment (teaching in the game) to reemphasize key points, pose questions or consider ‘fair play’ or ‘resilience’. ‘Enhance’ the play by using motivational strategies to engage and maintain positive learning states. Many good teachers and coaches use these process intuitively however it is helpful particularly for novice educators to learn about these strategies for teaching. This information is expanded in C4 Strategies for Teaching Play Pratice in the second edition of ‘Play Practice engaging and developing skilled players from beginner to elite’ (Human Kinetics) by Alan Launder & Wendy Piltz
    You might be interested in looking at this.
    Thanks for the post Wendy Piltz

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