Helping Ontario’s Kids Get in the Game - How “Teaching Games for Understanding” is Rearranging the Rules in H&PE Classes
In Amherstburg, Ontario, Physical Education teacher Russell Minnis is using a rubber chicken to teach kids the basics of basketball... and hockey... and soccer... and lacrosse.
And while it may sound strange, you’d be amazed at how well it’s working. “The kids enjoy it much more than a basketball,” says Minnis of his chicken, which is just one of many tools he uses to teach students the skills needed for a group of sports called invasion games. “And not only are they having more fun,” he continues, “they’re also learning to use their skills in different ways.”
Thanks to Ontario’s 2010 elementary H&PE curriculum, teachers across the province are using similar techniques with equal success. The approach, which is called Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU), sees educators focusing on helping students learn fundamental movement skills, concepts and principles that they can apply to a wide range of physical activities rather than emphasizing specific sports skills. By providing a learner-centred approach that puts the needs and abilities of the participants first, it’s increasing students’ levels of enjoyment and participation, all while providing them with the skills they need to move confidently in a wide range of physical activities.
Why do we need TGfU?
Teaching Games for Understanding was pioneered at Loughborough University in the early 1980s by researchers Rod Thorpe and David Bunker. The pair developed the model in response to the fact that students were often leaving the educational system with little knowledge of how to play games effectively, as well as with a limited capacity to apply the skills they did learn in different contexts.
“I found that, in the old method, students were graded on their ability to perform a skill instead of on knowing why they were doing it, or how to do it properly,” says Minnis. “They were assessed on the outcome—how many baskets did you get? And a lot of students lost interest in the game if they weren’t succeeding.” It’s an observation that is widely supported by research on the TGfU approach. Not only do students show better understanding of tactical knowledge when the model is applied, but they also report experiencing more enjoyment—something which is key.
“When we meet the needs and abilities of the participants we provide a very positive experience,” says Sue McMahon, Curriculum Resource Teacher in Physical Education and Health for the London District Catholic School Board. “And this positive experience is what will lead to lifelong participation.”
TGfU and the 2010 H&PE Curriculum
The building of physical literacy—defined as the ability to move with competence in a variety of physical activities—is central to Ontario’s 2010 H&PE curriculum and, not surprisingly, it’s also at the heart of TGfU. “The model encourages the transfer of learning and introduces a wide variety of activities,” says James Mandigo, Associate Professor at Brock University’s Department of Physical Education & Kinesiology, and one of Canada’s leading experts on the TGfU model. “It also uses holistic ideas around social and cognitive development.”
In fact, the curriculum and TGfU are so closely linked that Strand B—Movement Competence: Skills, Concepts, and Strategies—is based on the model. However, in addition to focusing on helping students develop movement skills and concepts and movement strategies, living skills are also integrated throughout the strand.
According to Mandigo, this is appropriate, as these skills are also central to TGfU. “With Teaching Games for Understanding, students learn how to think critically and problem solve, how to negotiate ideas with different people, how to be leaders. They also learn self awareness and how to adapt in different situations. These life skills are as important as the physical skills when it comes to leading a healthy active life,” he says.
The model also fosters games literacy—giving students the knowledge and understanding they need to anticipate patterns of play, the technical and tactical skills to respond appropriately and creatively in a game situation, and the motivation to play. Within the 2010 Health and Physical Education curriculum, the experiential underpinnings of the TGfU approach are also applied to physical activities that are not games. The curriculum encourages teachers to provide students with opportunities to explore recreation, fitness, movement, dance and outdoor activities that do not involve team play but do provide opportunities for students to develop movement skills, apply movement concepts and build their understanding of movement strategies as they participate.
How does the approach work?
According to McMahon, the number one question students ask as they run through traditional drills for skill building is: ‘When are we going to play the game?’ “With TGfU,” she says, “teachers will never hear that dreaded question again!”
While the approach does not mean students will never play a traditional sport in an H&PE class, it does mean that they are unlikely to start with a specific sport, or to focus on it exclusively for an entire class or unit or to spend a lot of time playing the “official” form of the game. Instead, games are divided into four broad categories and students are shown how the skills used for one game can, and should, be transferred to others within the same category. To maximize participation, students are provided with a range of opportunities to play modified versions of games in small groups.
TGfU Game Categories:
- Target Games
An object is propelled, at a target (e.g., golf, bowling, curling, wheelchair bocce, shuffleboard). Accuracy and control are emphasized. Target size, distance from the target and types of equipment are all adaptable.
- Net/Wall Games
An object is sent over a net or against a wall. Players aim to make it difficult for opponents to send the object back. (e.g., tennis, badminton, volleyball, squash)
- Striking/Fielding Games
The striking team tries to hit or strike an object into a specified open area then run to designated areas, while the fielding team tries to catch the object or get it to a designated area (e.g., baseball, softball, tee ball, cricket). The games involve running, striking, batting, throwing, kicking and catching.
- Territory Games
Players aim to control an object, keeping it away from opponents and moving it into a scoring position (e.g., football, rugby, basketball, lacrosse, hockey). Territory games are challenging because of continuous action and decision making needed to switch between offensive and defensive roles, the number of people involved, and the movement in the playing area
After selecting a games category, educators focus in on a skill or set of skills, and strategies for that category of activities, then tailor their lesson around the needs, abilities and skills of the students. This means taking age-related skill development into account, but also means accommodating the needs and learning styles of individual students whenever possible. In offering choice and flexibility in how students practise and demonstrate a skill, educators can provide the best possible chance for the greatest number of students to succeed.
“Some students may still be developing their ability to perform a skill,” says Minnis, “but they can explain it. And developing the knowledge side actually increases their ability to do it on the performance side.”
What does a TGfU lesson look like?
The TGfU approach is guided by four underlying pedagogical principles. The first is called sampling. This technique is used to help students understand how tactical solutions, rules and skills can be transferred between games within the same game category. Through the second principle, game representation, instructors create developmentally appropriate game-like scenarios that demonstrate how and when a particular skill or tactical solution could be used within a game. Exaggeration, the third principle, sees educators choosing a particular focus for an activity and then creating a scenario that demonstrates the chosen concept. Finally, the fourth principle, tactical complexity, focuses on helping students to understand increasingly complex tactical solutions—both during play and in group discussions.
These four principles are put into practice through the six components of the model which begin with a game. That game, however, may look different from those you are familiar with. “The warm-up would be some sort of modified version of a game,” says Heather Gardner, Ophea’s Curriculum Consultant. “A teaser of the skill, concept or strategy that will be used. For example, if the focus was on a net/wall game, like volleyball, students might play a game of Four Court to practice the overhead pass, or volley.” (See the lesson plan below for a description of Four Court and other sample volleyball activities.)
The next four components, game appreciation, tactical awareness, decision making and skill execution, make up the body of the lesson and are addressed through a combination of discussion and practise in a number of small group activities.
“An educator could begin by having students dialogueabout the overhead pass,” explains Gardner. When would they choose to use it? In what situation would a forearm pass be likely to work better? Students would then test their theories and put their skills into practice through different activities designed to exaggerate certain aspects of a game. For example, they might begin by practising the overhead pass with a partner, then move on to playing a game of shuttle volleyball with a small number of players. These activities would be interspersed with brief discussions where students verbalize what they have just learned about proper skill execution, why it is important and how it might be implemented in a game situation for this lesson’s game or others within the same game category.
The final step, game performance, involves applying what has been learned in the previous steps through an advanced form of the game. As the game is played, educators provide feedback about the execution of the skills and reinforce the tactical understanding that was previously introduced. Students can also self reflect and provide peer feedback about their application of the skills, concepts and strategies in a game situation.
Where can teachers turn for help?
While the revised H&PE Curriculum, Grades 1-8, is set up to guide educators through the implementation and use of the TGfU model, this approach is new for many educators. Teachers are encouraged to take the time to read the background information at the front of the 2010 elementary H&PE curriculum (available on the Ontario Ministry of Education’s website) and reference the examples, teacher prompts and student responses which provide illustrations of this approach. As well, the Ophea H&PE Curriculum Resources are available to help. (The attached Volleyball lesson is a sample of the quality material you will find within the resources).
Ophea’s website is another valuable resource. “Through www.ophea.net teachers can discover a multitude of games from each category,” says McMahon. “All of the instructions showing how to play can be found on this site.” Using these materials, and discussing and reflecting with colleagues can help to build teachers’ understanding about Teaching Games for Understanding.
How can TGfU create a lifelong love of physical activity?
As students develop critical thinking skills, along with the skills needed to play a variety of games, not only is their confidence bound to increase, but so too is their love of games and joy in being physically active.
“In the past, if you went to a grade school volleyball tournament, you’d see that the kids were watching the coach on the sidelines for cues,” says Minnis. “But with TGfU, kids have practical knowledge. They can think, ‘If the ball is high, I can use this tactic. If it’s low, I do this.” It’s a situation where Minnis doesn’t miss acting as the expert. “The best coach is the one who doesn’t have to say anything,” he adds.
And perhaps most valuable is the feeling of pride and mastery students experience when they succeed of their own accord. “When they understand the how and why of different activities, they’re comfortable, and when they’re comfortable they’re more active,” says Minnis. McMahon would agree: “Once students are equipped and have acquired the “I can do that” sense of accomplishment,” she says, “the sky is the limit.”