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Owning the Game

Monday, June 1, 2015 - 10:32

How Student Choice in H&PE can lead to a Lifelong Love of Physical Activity

As adults, we have different preferences when it comes to getting active—some like a relaxing stroll while others go for a long run... some prefer the music and movement of a dance class while others crave the fast-paced action of a competitive soccer game—but there’s one thing we’ve got in common. We all gravitate toward activities that are within our comfort zone and that we feel we can do with some level of skill and success. It’s hardly surprising that students feel the same.

“When students are engaged and they like what they’re doing, at the end of the day that’s what will promote a lifelong healthy lifestyle,” comments Marc-André Proulx, a physical education teacher and guidance counsellor at École Saint-Dominique-Savio in Owen Sound, Ontario.

Luckily, through the 2015 Health and Physical Education (H&PE) Curriculum, which promotes the use of a skill-based model called Teaching Games for Understanding—as well as through a variety of resources available to teachers that promote student choice—today’s health and physical education classes are set up to allow students to build a range of fundamental movement skills while also catering to their diverse needs and interests.

How does student choice work?

All students in Ontario must meet the expectations set out in the H&PE Curriculum as they work to develop physical literacy—the ability to move with competence and confidence in a wide range of physical activities. Student choice does not mean that a student gets to pick and choose from these expectations, nor does it mean there’s a free-for-all in the gym. If anything, providing student choice involves a more carefully structured and planned approach on the part of an educator.

“Student choice is a big component of differentiated instruction,” says Andrea Haefele, an H&PE teacher at Highgate Public School in Markham, Ontario. “It gives students different ways to demonstrate their learning so they can be successful.”

For example, when teaching skills like aim and accuracy that are needed for target games (such as golf, bocce or bowling) instead of having all students throw a beanbag through a hoop from a set of specific distances for a varying number of points, an educator might let students choose an aspect of the activities, like throwing a rubber chicken instead of the beanbag through a hula hoop, or working in a group to determine their own distances from the target and scoring system. Ideally, these activities would target different skill levels, from the most basic to the most advanced. Students may sample all of the activities but, when it comes time for evaluation, could select the activity they feel most comfortable and competent doing. In this way, all students learn and demonstrate basic tactical concepts and movement skills and strategies, but in different ways.

What are the benefits of providing students with choices?

One of the most significant benefits of student choice is that it allows everyone to experience success. “With confidence comes competence,” says David Inglis, Learning Coordinator for Health & Physical Education K-12 for the Thames Valley District School Board. “If kids are confident in their ability to be engaged, they’re more likely to stay engaged.” In Inglis’ experience, this can translate into more students choosing to sign up for H&PE classes even after they’ve completed the mandatory grade 9 credit.

Another key benefit is that, although students can choose to move between the levels or activities at any time, even if a student chooses to stay at the most basic level when learning a skill, ultimately, everyone in the gym is achieving the same learning outcome and is remaining active and engaged throughout class time. 

Furthermore, while setting up different activities and stations to cater to various skill levels may involve more work upfront for teachers, in both the short-term and the long run, it pays off by resulting in students who are not only more competent and confident, but also more independent.

In fact, Haefele equates acquiring physical literacy in this way to developing literacy in a language class. “If you’re teaching children to read in your language class,” she says, “you’re not just teaching them to read the book, Brown Bear, Brown Bear. You’re teaching them how to apply comprehension skills so that they can understand and enjoy the book. You’re showing them how to apply comprehension skills such as predicting, inferencing and making connections. In the end, your goal is that they’ll be able to transfer these skills so that they can competently understand a recipe... an advertisement... a newspaper article. It’s the same thing in physical education. You want them to be able to play any sport or do any activity they choose with confidence and competence.”

Teaching Games for Understanding

One key way that educators are helping students to develop physical literacy is through a model called Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU). The model divides games into four categories that use common skills and tactics—invasion/territory games, striking/fielding games, target games and net/wall games. It then sees educators using various types of games and activities to teach the fundamental skills used in each category of games.

“Basically,” says Proulx, “we modify traditional sports and place emphasis on critical thinking and basic skills that we can transfer from game to game.”

“A lot of it has to do with gradual release,” comments Inglis. “As they get more comfortable with the game and you introduce the different concepts, you start asking the kids to think about what would happen if we increased the playing area... or if we used different equipment. As kids make choices their confidence evolves. Now they have some ownership.”

Helping Students to see the Benefits of Choice

Of course, while student choice has many benefits, it can also present some challenges. “The biggest challenge is kids who aren’t willing to challenge themselves,” says Inglis. “Some will always go to what they perceive as the easiest activity. They’re not willing to put themselves out there and try something a little more difficult.” To help students work through these fears, Inglis has students write a monthly or bi-weekly journal, reflecting on their level of participation.

“Another challenge is the open-mindedness of students who are sometimes so trapped in the traditional versions of sports that they don’t see the benefits of the TGfU approach,” says Proulx. He has found this to be especially true at the secondary level, where students may initially fail to see why they’re doing passes with a rubber chicken when they could be playing a ‘real’ game of rugby. However, having discussions with students about how the core skills and strategies they’re learning apply in different games can go a long way toward achieving their buy-in.

PlaySport: Simple Activity Ideas that Provide Student Choice

If coming up with different activities at various skill levels sounds like an overwhelming prospect, rest assured, there are plenty of resources available to help you provide students with choice.

One such resource is PlaySport — a free, bilingual activity-based resource for elementary and secondary students. PlaySport helps children and youth to develop skills and strategies associated with a wide range of physical activities and sports. It’s ideal for educators, recreation providers, coaches and physical activity promoters and embraces the Teaching Games for Understanding approach.

PlaySport includes 70 activity cards and visual supports which link to the curriculum, the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines and to sports/parasports from the TO2015 Pan Am/ParaPan Am Games. The PlaySport activity cards give options and directions for teachers to provide students with choice. The resource highlights the responsibility of the teacher to act as a facilitator and to maximize participation and fun by making adaptations that allow for various levels of challenge. It also allows students to make their own adaptations, helping them to take ownership of their learning. Finally, the resource features open-ended questions that help students to explore, discover, create and experiment with movement and tactical solutions.

Celebrating the Pan Am/Parapan Am Games while Promoting Student Choice & Physical Activity

Large sporting events, such as the 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games, give students a chance to see a wide range of sports being played and to identify connections with what they’re learning in their physical education classes—and it’s when these connections are made that sporting events become much more relevant to them. “When this happens the students’ interest goes up,” says Inglis. “I get better engagement, and better engagement gives me better success.”

The Government of Ontario and TORONTO 2015  have created a program to help every kid be a Pan Am/Parapan Am Kid. This program includes four resources to help educators make the most of heightened student interest and engagement. PlaySport is one of the four resources through which children and youth can learn about and participate in different sport, recreational and cultural activities before, during and after the TORONTO 2015 Games.

Schools and communities are encouraged to use the PPAKids resources to support them in celebrating the games and participating in #PanAmDay on June 12th.

Student Choice, Student Success, Lifelong Participation

“To me, student choice means student voice,” says Haefele. “If a teacher stands back and becomes the facilitator rather than the leader, students become more a part of their own learning.”

This translates into students who not only have stronger fundamental movement skills, but who also feel more comfortable participating in different sports and activities—not only in school, but at home and out in the community.

By providing students with options (within a structured context) teachers encourage them to use their knowledge of self to determine their optimal challenge level and to select the activities that they most enjoy.  And when students are enjoying themselves, they’re much more likely to continue to participate in physical activity regularly as children, as teenagers and well into adulthood. In fact, a love of physical activity fostered at a young age can have an impact on generations to come. “If they have fun in physical education as kids, they’re even more likely to get their own children involved in physical activity as well when they become parents,” says Proulx.

Thankfully, with the availability of resources like PlaySport, models like TGfU and exciting events like the Pan Am/Parapan Am Games, it’s easier than ever for educators to foster a love of physical activity.

“The nice thing about PlaySport, TGfU and the Pan Am/Parapan Am Kids Program is that they can be incorporated into all grades, as well as into multiple settings,” concludes Haefele. “You may have to do a little bit of modification, but the concepts they are promoting add to any teacher’s repertoire regardless of what grade they’re teaching.”