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!!

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