New Constraints, Same Philosophy: Play is Essential

Prior to the pandemic, play was essential for the physical, cognitive, social, and emotional well-being of children. In quality physical education, ongoing feedback and purposeful practice were achieved through the use of peer interactions and small-sided games (with modifications and extensions). Autonomy, differentiated challenges, and self-reflection were embedded throughout units and lessons.

Classroom management strategies and routines allowed for maximum physical engagement and timely feedback. Establishing a culture of social and emotional safety was paramount. Sending a consistent message that failure is an essential part of the learning journey allows students to build their competence within a safe environment. Thus, equipping students with the confidence and interdependence to overcome physical, social, and emotional hardships.

Safety measures have put new constraints on how we deliver quality physical education. But the students’ need for physical, emotional, and social well-being has never been so important.

At my school, in order to facilitate social distancing, our classrooms and open spaces (library, gym, cafeteria, auditorium) have been transformed into cohort classrooms. Students will wear masks and stay with their cohort, in their respective 6-feet of space and the content teachers will come to the cohort to deliver the lessons.

I always start the school year with community building. After several months of social isolation, I will be dedicating most of my energy to building social bonds and awareness of emotions. We are planning on being outdoors as much as possible to allow the freedom to move. However, outdoor lessons are hindered by things like weather, noise, lack of visuals (projectors, whiteboards, etc.).

We can not share equipment or supplies, so ball sports are going to be limited to self-toss or foot-to-foot passing only. Rather than focusing on traditional team sports and manipulative skills, our units and activities will focus more on opening avenues to lifetime activities; that on the surface are individual pursuits, but are more fun when done as part of a group (such as golf, biking, parkour, team adventure challenges, orienteering, etc.)

For the students who are participating in virtual or distance learning, I will be posting short videos (3-5 minutes) at least twice per week for them to view in their own time as well as activity choices. These pre-recorded videos and activity choices will serve to keep us connected as well as to reflect on the content and apply it to their unique environment. I will also hold scheduled “office hours” where I will host Zoom meetings for off-campus students to drop by to just say “hi,” ask questions, play a quick game, or share how things are going.

The biggest challenge will be creating a joyful association with learning and physical activity with all of the safety constraints. Finding ways to make the school experience fun will certainly take some creativity and willingness to give up control in favor of student exploration.

Middle School students at The Avery Coonley School playing cricket using only feet.

Within these parameters, I am taking the opportunity to slow down and seek more genuine connections with the students. I am most concerned about their psychological well-being in the school environment. Physical Education teachers, and all teachers for that matter, should be more open about our vulnerabilities and reflect openly about how we are doing with our own self-care. Students will have had the differing experiences of the quarantine, online learning, and lack of social connection. The perspective gained from these experiences has most certainly stunted social and emotional coping skills. Even prior to the pandemic, children had already been suffering from anxiety and depression due to social and/or familial pressures like no other generation before. Coupled with the fear of illness or death from something you can’t see and don’t yet fully understand, these traumas lend themselves to an incredibly unstable population of young people.

As educators, we must reflect on what are the new learning priorities for these students. In my opinion, many of the physical skills and strategies are low priorities whereas mindfulness, lifelong activities, and individual pursuits are priorities given the limitations and constraints of the pandemic. This pandemic has afforded children the opportunity and time to try something new. With the lack of youth sports, kids can explore new areas of recreation; which, in some ways, has been refreshing to see.

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