Do PE, play sport – there’s a difference!

Personally I am an advocate of the physical literacy concept. In fact, part of the motivation to do this blog was the too common misconception that contemporary PE is still ‘just’ sport or gym. It should be noted I absolutely respect all sports, their coaches and athletes. Sport has played a hugely positive part of my life and always will. But to lump PE and sport together as the same thing is a massive misrepresentation of both of them. It’s like saying surfing and snowboarding are the same. Hope you like the amazing accompanying graphic made by yours truly. Graphic design maybe if this teacher stuff doesn’t work out??? Anyway, the skills required are somewhat similar but the environment, context, rationale and subsequent outcomes are very different. The following is an attempt to share my current understanding of this topic.

First, the PE environment. Sometimes through no choice of  our own, lessons are held in various spaces. It could be a purpose built PE area or a multi sport court/gym, an unused classroom, or maybe you’re sharing the school field. What space you teach in one day could be very different the next. Due to the nature of schools the physical environment of PE is often fluid. The learning environment is also very fluid. The variety of cultural backgrounds, language and previous experience are just a few of the many astonishing diversities in any modern day classroom. PE doesn’t have the luxury of streaming (thank god), classes are highly differentiated, groupings and pairs are constantly varied and the curriculum focus changes at least every 4-6 weeks if not sooner- partly to ensure maximum student engagement but also partly due to the massive scope of what it means to be physically educated these days. Within any unit students will be challenged to evaluate, adapt, assess, practice, demonstrate, reflect, critique, advise, empathise and justify in regards to a range of conceptual understandings as well as physical skills. The thinking skills required to perform these tasks are a demonstration of the students understanding in PE and play a major role in the planning of learning experiences and subsequent learning outcomes. Basically, the environment cultivates the exploration of process not just the end movement product. If that makes sense 😐

The PE context is one of maximal physical activity and psychological engagement interspersed with various personal development opportunities. The idea of developing students physical abilities and subsequent physical literacy through the playing of sport is misguided. As PE teachers we aim to develop skills in a broad range of environments so that students are better prepared to connect and apply these skills in new settings. A PE student should not be drilled in a consistent and controlled environment like a player learning a new skill or strategy of a sport. As PE teachers we understand the enormous physical and psychological benefit of movement for our students and the need to maximise activity in the limited time we have. Of course a PE student is required to practice skills accurately, but the environment/context that these skills are practiced in is very different to that of a sport. Games for understanding (TGFU), Sport Education Model and peer teaching are just a few ways students are challenged to create their own conceptual understanding whilst also being required to practice physical technique at the same time. Basically, the focus is on making connections and the holistic development of the student, not just the skill set required for one specific sporting context.

The rationale of PE. It’s complex and interconnected. Like all other subjects though, we are concerned with student learning. Learning may look a little different across the different year levels but the ideas are similar. Kids learn through movement in PE. In my opinion, this learning whilst not totally exhaustive, includes the following:

Kids learn…

  • Through participation in physical activity the acquisition of motor skills and the development of numerous conceptual understandings,
  • To develop an awareness and appreciation for physical activity which helps cultivate the foundation for lifelong physical activity,
  • To analyse and become aware of both personal, peer and public health issues,
  • To develop and apply of personal skills such as resilience, empathy, communication and self-esteem and
  • Develop cognitive skills through the use of critical and creative thinking strategies.


The points above display a summarised and holistic approach to what it means to be physically educated. Also, if we were to look at HPE rather than just PE, the Health components would be in addition too.

Finally, the outcomes of PE. You guessed it, there are many. The scope and sequence of the PE curriculum is one that is specific to the school in which it is being taught. Outcomes for one school, one class or even one student will be very different to another. All the above play a role in what outcomes are achieved by the students and when. With PE having such scope and curriculum time being limited i.e. I see my elementary students 2 x 1hr per week, which I think is quite good but of course would love to see them more, the challenge for PE educators is to choose which outcomes to focus on and when.

Even with an explicit focus there are so many incidental outcomes possible. Many of the concepts and skills in the PE curriculum can not be checked off at the back of the book. In ES PE students often need to have explored things for themselves, before they can receive further instruction, perform certain movement patterns or be placed in specific performance environments. In our subject often the demonstration of learning takes time; and practice! Mistakes are made and often create perfect learning opportunities. Some kids arrive to class full of ability and strategic know how after being involved in a range of sports outside of class. Others don’t. In my opinion we should value the process more than the finished product. PE is not about a W; often sport is. 

So outcomes…what was the intended outcome of this post? Create a piece of literary beauty?  Lol. Clearly not. Nope, it was about the process. The process of developing a deeper understanding of my subject area. This process continues. Coffee time!!

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