Play is the way
Charles Sturt University lecturer, Rachael Jefferson-Buchanan, talks to Education Matters about the importance of play, and the teaching and learning of fundamental movement skills.
Fundamental movement skills (FMS) comprise movement patterns involving feet, legs, trunk, head, arms and hands. They are deemed to be the foundation for more complex and specialised skills that are an integral part of structured, unstructured, collaborative and competitive physical activities for young people and adults. FMS are often organised into three different categories, and although the terminology for these do vary internationally, there is widespread agreement that these essentially encompass:
• Body management skills (e.g. climbing, balancing on one foot);
• Locomotor skills (e.g. running, hopping, skipping); and
• Object control skills (e.g. catching, throwing).
My research over the last 14 years as a physical education lecturer and consultant in the UK and Australia has involved an exploration of how FMS are taught in schools by primary generalist teachers, together with how teacher education students plan for and teach FMS during their university training in physical education. It has been an interesting journey that has revealed how FMS are often taught using didactic approaches.
The learning of FMS in schools
Schools are critical contexts for the promotion of physical activity in children and young people. Since approximately 500 hours of physical education are taught at primary school level, this indicates how the physical education lesson is a significant locale in which to enhance physical activity levels. However, it is important that FMS are learned in enjoyable and meaningful ways within the primary physical education context, for this could potentially have a positive effect on a child’s future engagement in physical activity beyond the school context.
When FMS learning is underpinned by the pedagogy of play, rather than being isolated and taught in technocratic ways, this can empower and enthuse students. It also frees up the teacher if they release the classroom reins, enabling them to adopt a number of different roles and types of involvement during the student-centred activities they have assembled. Accordingly, they can become an observer, a facilitator, or a participant.
Contemplating skill learning
Play is a medium through which children can have fun, make sense of and communicate their knowledge about the world, reveal needs and refine skills. Indeed, Froebel’s theory of play in On the education of man (die Menschenerziehurg (1826), suggested almost two centuries ago, that play is essential in securing healthy child development. Although play is considered essential for a child’s effective learning in the early years and primary classroom, the play-based learning of FMS in the primary physical education context is not always apparent. During my research processes in school and university-based environments, it has become increasingly evident that this is due to two key reasons: historical tradition, and the perceived and actual efficacy of primary physical education teachers.
In regard to the first reason, the historical context of skill learning in physical education tends to permeate and influence contemporary pedagogy and practice. In ‘Beyond the technocractic limits of physical education’, as published in Quest (1990, p.53), McKay, Gore and Kirk refer to this phenomenon as an ideology of “technocratic physical education”. To a certain extent, this comprises a reliance on scientistic teaching methodologies, concurrently exposing an instrumental rationality. Such a narrow epistemological perspective perceives the body’s development of fitness and technical skills as the core of teaching and learning in physical education, thereby reproducing rather than challenging existing social arrangements.
During my research and lecturing processes in two different Western countries, when primary generalist teachers plan for and teach FMS they regularly resort to teacher-led activities.
This pattern has often arisen during my observations, and it appears to stem from two interrelated elements. In particular, it indicates how adults often draw on their own experiences in school and embody these as the ‘correct’ way to do things. This enactment becomes problematic when negative physical education experiences are prevalent during primary and secondary years. During this time, prospective physical education teachers can become familiar with certain pedagogical practices through their experiences and observations, eventually forming judgements about what constitutes quality teaching. It can subsequently be difficult for teacher educators to significantly influence their teacher education students’ embodied pedagogy and practice during the relatively short time they undertake primary-based physical education subjects.
The second related element connects with other theorists’ work in the field, which highlights how primary generalists lack the confidence and competence to help students develop proficient FMS. This can lead to teaching methods becoming didactic in nature or lessons involving supervised play only.
The adoption of these kinds of pedagogic approaches appears to be intimately linked to a teacher’s/teacher education student’s lack of belief in their own ability to competently perform skills and activities. As a result, they sometimes resort to quick fixes and work with readymade movement programs/packages that will enable them to easily meet syllabus learning outcomes and cover all necessary content.
The power of play
It is important to emphasise that the teaching of FMS should, above all, seek to foster a young student’s love of moving through play-based activities.Any misguided perceptions that teachers might have in relation to FMS acquisition needing to be underpinned by command-based approaches must therefore be disbanded.
Lines of students passing a ball between them does not involve advancement of the players towards the goal area; this lacks authenticity and does not help students relate to the real and dynamic game context. Such a skill-drill practice can have a detrimental effect on a student’s knowledge and understanding of the game, as well as their motivation to hone a specific FMS such as catching. For this reason, it is important for teachers to transfer play-based pedagogy that is often visible in their classroom space to the physical education milieu. These play experiences should be relevant, meaningful and purposeful, giving students choice and social support as opposed to making them perform a mere skill-oriented task. Students need to be encouraged to understand skill development processes through their play-based learning activities, but the latter should also nurture communication, decision-making, helping and listening to others, sharing ideas, sharing roles and equipment, and participating at their own level.
The teacher should be letting them have a go at learning FMS, contextualise each and every learning activity, and employ a hands-off approach, only intervening with the learning of a particular FMS when there are safety concerns or certain progressions are required.
Play is a rich and stimulating medium for FMS learning, helping children to progress their physical, cognitive and social capacities by engaging them in exploratory, whole-bodied experiences. As such, play should be at the core of every FMS learning experience, since it cultivates meaningful, purposeful and imaginative corporeal involvement. This pedagogical approach could thereby help minimise students’ potential feelings of frustration in the learning of more advanced skills, increasing the likelihood of them becoming physically active adolescents.
As a researcher and physical educator with 30 years of teaching experience in the field I can only conclude that through focused, play-based practice it is possible to enhance FMS proficiency in each and every student.
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