Let’s Embrace the Complexity of Primary Physical Education


Over the last decade I have been working with colleagues to see how we can use complexity thinking ideas to better understand and practice physical education. It’s been hard work but the journey has certainly helped me make better sense of the way I think about and approach my work. While most of the early work in complexity was academic in nature, we have started to make good progress in the way we use complexity ideas to explicitly inform our practice. As a first step to share these ideas, this blog presents 6 ways that we have been using complexity to develop our work in primary physical education. While there may be little new, the ideas will hopefully offer a frame of reference to help make more sense of the primary physical education experience.

1. Develop Primary Physical Education as a Connective Hub

Primary physical education should be the hub that acts as the catalyst for children’s life-wide and lifelong physical activity. While physical education classes are held in the gym or field, these classes should be sued to make connections with children’s lives. We need to look for the real-life connections across the rest of the school and beyond the school gates. To make primary physical education this connective hub we need careful planning, collaborative working and a good understanding of the context in which we are working.

2. Forget the ‘Quick Fixes’: prepare for an uncertain future!!

While primary physical education logically focuses on children’s current experiences, any long-term success is ultimately measured by the impact these experiences have on children’s lifelong learning and lifelong engagement in physical activity. Of course, the future is uncertain so primary physical education should be about taking children from where they are at the present time and working to build a solid foundation that will help them cope effectively with this uncertain future. This doesn’t happen with a ‘quick fix’ programme!!

3. Understand Your Starting Point

Primary physical education is not just about teaching specific physical activities, so don’t start there. Simply deciding the physical activity content that you want to cover in lessons is a ‘pot luck’ experience. We need to start with learning intentions that are appropriate or realistic for our context. If we genuinely want to help children build a solid foundation for the future we need to start off with as much information as possible. Most importantly, are the children ready to engage with the physical. cognitive, social and emotional learning experiences you intend to offer? Are the facilities, equipment, school timetable and national policy of the day in line with your intentions? Do you, as the teacher, have the knowledge and skills to support this intention? The future might be uncertain so it would seem sensible to give the children, and you, the best possible starting point.

4. Nurture Adaptable and Creative Learners

While some teachers may see the focus of primary physical education being about movement technique, others see it as play. Neither of these polarised viewpoints are particularly helpful. If we want children to develop the solid foundation discussed above, children need to be supported to develop a complex mix of technical movement competence AND the capacity to be adaptable and creative in both their movement and general behaviour across a range of different contexts. Building this technical, adaptable and creative foundation may be a significant challenge but it is one we must work towards.

5. Revisit and Signpost Connections

Children don’t learn by simply sampling activities. If we chunk our programme into short blocks of physical activities, we need to ask ourselves two important questions. Are we setting up situations that help children develop the technical, adaptable and creative foundation they need for now and for the future? Do the experiences we offer help children signpost the connections across the physical education subject area, the school and into the community setting? If the answer to these questions are negative, action is needed. We need to concentrate on learning experiences that help children build the physical, cognitive, social and emotional foundation that will help them develop, build and consolidate their technical, adaptive and creative learning. At the heart of this capacity building exercise is physical education programmes that help children revisit important learning opportunities on a regular and progressive basis and also help them draw the connections with many different aspects of their life and their learning. Again, this may be a challenge but it is so important for the future of the subject area.

6. Oversee Progress with Adaptive Teaching

Orchestrating the ideas presented above will need teachers who are adaptive in their practice. Understanding starting points and regularly checking children’s engagement and learning in a formative way will help teachers track progress and adapt their teaching in response to the children’s efforts. We learn so much by standing back and observing and by asking appropriate questions. As we build this bank of information about the progress being made, we will be able to reflect ‘in action’ and later ‘on action’ to make professional judgements and decisions about next steps……but more about that in a later blog!!

Yes, primary physical education is complex….let’s embrace it!!

“Accentuate the Positive”

Does it really all have to be doom and gloom?

This is my ‘I need to get this off my chest’ blog post. Everywhere I turn at the moment I feel like I’m being bombarded with doom and gloom about primary physical education. Articles in the press, professional papers and academic journals all seem to have the same strapline: primary physical education (and physical education in general) is ‘broken’. Conference presentations, meetings with colleagues and even a YouTube video that was advocating for physical education have all been based on the problems or inadequacies of primary physical education. It’s pretty depressing stuff. My problem isn’t with the negatives per se, but the fact that so many of these comments come from within the physical education profession. I understand that others may want to have a go at primary physical education, but I don’t really understand what physical educators seek to achieve by constantly accentuating the negative!!

Sage Words

Over twenty years ago at a conference in La Crosse, Wisconsin, I arranged to meet with George Graham. George was a professor in primary physical education at Virginia Tech and someone I admired from afar. He was lead author of the best-selling textbook ‘Children Moving’ and a range of other books on primary physical education. I was a newcomer to higher education and desperately trying to find a way to develop my own academic career and PhD study (a task that would take another 17 years to complete). George was one of the ‘names’ I was seeking out around that time and he was the one who presented me with one of my ‘ah ha’ moments. In summary, his advice went something like this: “Michael, we both know you can carry out a study that tells us all the problems about primary physical education. Do us all a favour and don’t do that. Do something that moves things forward. What can you do that takes a more positive approach?”. While I haven’t always been able to heed George’s words, I can honestly say that they have had a huge influence on the way I have tried to make my contribution. He made me realise that looking for the flaws in everything was a pretty easy route to take and that while trying to take a more positive tack was more difficult it certainly seemed logical to me. As I reflect on these last few weeks, George’s words, not for the first time, have come back as I read and listen to the ‘doom and gloomers’!!

Spirits lifted

So, I am delighted to report that my spirits were lifted at the end of last week. As part of one of our on-going projects around Edinburgh, I met up with a couple of teachers I have been working with for more than a decade. They always cheer me up. They talk enthusiastically about the lifelong and life-wide drivers that inform the way they approach their primary physical education programmes. They discuss real examples of how their children’s social, emotional and cognitive learning are critical features of the physical education experience. They talk about trying out contemporary generic and models-based ideas. Critically, they discuss how they grapple with these different approaches to fit their learning intentions, different settings and the different children they work with. Further, they talk about working with other teachers in their school, with parents and with local coaches. The love to talk about the different physical activities their children take part in before, after and outside school. During this recent meeting they even discussed how students from their local high schools come into their classes to help them teach the physical education programme and also develop their own leadership skills. Sure, they recognise the challenges but they seem to be doing what George suggested: acknowledging the issues but trying to move things forward. Surely, we can start to look on the brighter side of things and share some of our positive stories.

“Accentuate the Positive”

Primary physical education may have its challenges and may be an easy target for the ‘doom and gloomers’. It’s easy to be negative….really easy!! Of course, I’m not saying we should pretend that all is rosy in the garden….far from it!! While it’s a wee bit harder to be positive, let’s accept that there are some negatives but let’s collectively do something about them. We need to create positive primary physical education stories and share these across a wide range of contexts. As I said in an earlier bog, it’s not a quick fix and it’s hard work but if the physical education profession isn’t going to try it…..who else will! Glad I got that off my chest!!

Developing Connections to Fulfil the Potential of Primary Physical Education

The Educational Potential of Primary Physical Education

Primary physical education has the potential to offer children and young people so much. It can be the catalyst for a lifelong engagement in physical activity. However, the key for the future of primary physical education is being connected to broad educational agendas.  These agendas demonstrate how physical education can be connected in its own right.  Primary physical education can also connect across the primary school curriculum and beyond the school gates.  These connections are critical but don’t just happen by children being physically active from time to time.  It’s about the integrated learning that is developed and supported over many years.  It needs to connect to children’s lives.

Primary physical education as a connected subject

This potential of primary physical education is unlikely to be fulfilled if it is only focussed on the physical. The traditional multi-activity approach that has dominated for fifty years doesn’t connect physical education with contemporary educational agendas.  It maybe did fifty years ago but it doesn’t now.  This one-size-fits-all sampling approach may be fun for some but it’s difficult to see how it connects with long term learning.  Helping all children develop the physical, cognitive, social and emotional learning that acts as this foundation for lifelong physical activity is a complex process.  It is certainly much more complex than most people think.  Primary physical education needs to concentrate on the core physical, cognitive, social and emotional learning that helps integrate children’s experiences and also sets up connections beyond the gymnasium.

Primary physical education connecting across the primary school curriculum

No one would argue against the physical focus of physical education. However, being able to develop and maintain a physically active life also involves important cognitive, social and emotional learning.  Becoming physical educated takes many years.  It involves the gradual building of knowledge and understanding about learning to be physically active, learning how to work with others to be physically active and also engaging with the emotional issues involved in being regularly active.   Only being physical is unlikely to address many of these key issues.  Engaging children in the wider issues about being physically educated is ready made for the classroom setting and other curriculum areas. I think we sometimes get too embroiled in trying to convince everyone that physical education can help academic achievement.  We miss the point that while physical educations needs to be physical it also needs to include key cognitive, social and emotional learning.  Primary teachers have so much to offer in this regard.

Primary physical education connecting beyond the school gates

Primary physical education offers many opportunities to make connections with children’s lives beyond the school gates. Formal clubs that offer sport and physical activity opportunities abound in many communities.  Creating links between physical education and these clubs is an obvious route for many children.  However, formal sporting activity is not for everyone and is not the main route to lifelong physical activity for the majority.  Local communities around primary schools offer, often untapped, potential for physical activity.  This is particularly true for the informal activities that more and more children and adults are taking part in.  If we truly want children to become the active adults of the future, primary physical education can make a significant contribution by supporting children’s activity in both formal and informal settings within and outside the school.

But, there is a downside. Many primary schools do not really see physical education as being part of these wider educational agendas.  Each year I am told stories by students and teachers that highlight this issue.  National inspectors not observing physical education during inspections, a university tutor not wanting to see a student teach physical education because it is not ‘real teaching’ and primary physical education specialist teachers being told not to bother attending professional learning because it’s not relevant to them.  For many primary educators, physical education is clearly more about the physical than it is the educational.  We have a job to do here.

Primary physical education does have huge potential for all children. However, there is a lot of ‘hearts and minds’ advocacy work to be done. If we really want primary physical education to be about “Learning to be Physical for Life and Being Physical to Learn for Life” for all children then we need to develop strong connections across the school and with children’s lives.

“Learning to be Physical for Life and Being Physical to Learn for Life”

The last decade has witnessed a significant revival in the fortunes of primary physical education in many parts of the world. Often positioned on the margins of primary education and playing second fiddle to secondary physical education, the evidence is pointing towards a more optimistic future.

Many governments are showing more support for primary physical education in both policy and financial terms with the result that the professional learning opportunities for primary teachers have become more frequent and, in some cases, are moving beyond the long-criticised ‘quick fix’ short course approach. In the academic world, primary physical education is also becoming a more regular feature.

The European Primary Physical Education Network (EPPEN) for teacher educators came into being in 2016, while the first world seminar for primary physical education should take place in 2018 or 2019. Special editions of journals focussed on primary physical education are becoming a more common occurrence, as are academic journal articles, while the first international handbook on primary physical education will be published later in 2017. Developments certainly seem to be shifting in a positive direction.

From an educational perspective, however, there are a number of key issues that need to be negotiated and addressed before we are able to capitalise on the current good fortune. While less positive comment about the nature and quality of primary physical education seem to come with the territory, a pressing issue is the need for the physical education profession to collectively come together and advocate to the widest possible audience for the educational value and potential of primary physical education. Focussing on an educational agenda is critical for the future because the current attention on primary physical education seems to have its roots firmly in health and sport related agendas rather than the educational worth of the subject area.

This creates a ‘Catch 22’ situation for primary physical education. On the positive side, it is extremely encouraging that primary physical education is receiving such positive support from the sport and health lobbies, particularly because this signposts the potential that the subject area has to connect with the lives of children and young people. Professionals and volunteers working in these different sectors are great allies for primary physical education. However, with the outsourcing of primary physical education to sports coaches, private companies and health workers becoming more common in an increasing number of countries it appears to be the sport and health sectors that are the drivers of the primary physical education agenda.

My point is quite simple: primary physical education should first be viewed as a valuable educational experience so that it can be used as the catalyst to positively influence children’s engagement in sport, physical activity and associated health-related activities across and throughout their lives. In essence, primary physical education should be seen as the educational hub for lifelong learning and lifelong engagement in physical activity. Primary physical education therefore has the potential to do two very important interconnected things. First, by playing a significant role in the educational life of the primary school, it has the potential to enrich children’s learning across the school, and secondly, it can act as the foundation, or connective hub, for children’s lifelong and life-wide engagement in many different forms of physical activity.

This has been the first in a series of primary physical education blogs that set out to develop and expand these key points as part of a shifting perspective agenda that supports the case for primary physical education as a significant part of children’s educational experience and lives. The blogs will focus on a wide range of topics in an effort to fuel debate and discussion about primary physical education. Issues to be discussed will include policy, stakeholders, curriculum, pedagogy, professional learning, children’s voices and many more. However, running through the blogs will be two constant messages about primary physical education. It is about “Learning to be Physical for Life and Being Physical to Learn for Life”.