What the game is…

Over the last few years, the use of games based approaches have become my predominant method of teaching team sports to children. The shift in approach has been a positive experience both in teaching and learning, compared to that of a replication of isolated technique method. It fosters enjoyment, increases motivation to take part and be active and a desire to learn more about the game. At times it has been difficult to move away from a technique based method as my default teaching approach. Overcoming my own past experiences in sport both as a child and a teacher have been challenging. I believed that teaching through games just meant chucking the kids a ball, therefore undermining the role of the teacher in PE, but as Paul Cammarata points out  the game is often misunderstood. This was in part due to being taught in a traditional technical way as a child and having success as a player and in part due to being taught to teach that way. A habit formed over decades is difficult to question and break. Changing my teaching method has made me reassess what I think of the game as a PE Teacher:

The game is….the first point of call. I used to think the game was a reward. A reward for children who worked hard on technique during the lesson. If they couldn’t perform a technique how could they access the game? Soon the game became an appendage in my teaching, something that was added on to the important part of learning technique. Learning became the techniques needed for the game, not the game itself. Success and failure became whether they could perform that technique or not. This led to some very demotivated children and I couldn’t work out why.

Having now taught rugby and cricket to over 120 Year 7 children who have never played, through a games based approached, I have begun to realise how wrong my former postion was. Whilst I see no noticeable differences in the technical ability of the children via the two approaches, the main difference is for the love of the game. It is through playing the game that love for it builds. This love then drives the desire to become competent at it. Competency then sets the foundation of life long engagement with it.

By starting with the game first it sets the scene for skill development. Allowing a child to access the game first contextualises the tactics and strategies, which in turn allow them to contextualise the skills. By first starting with the principles of play, for example ‘go forward’ in rugby, children gain a greater insight into what we are trying to teach them. The game gives the answer to ‘why are we learning this’ which was always a staple question when using a technique based approach to teaching games.

The game is….the true learning environment. Place a child in a game and they will learn just by playing it. What they learn will be in their control. They will learn from the consequence of their actions, they will learn from interacting with others playing, they will learn from just spending time within that environment. Allow them responsiblity to self organise the game and they will also learn. This is what happens in the favelas, streets or parks around the world. Some quicker than others, but if we as adults step back, stay silent and are patient, they will learn. The game over time will provide them with learning opportunities or affordances, which they may or may not decide to take.

Each child will perceive the game differently. They will see things other children can’t see and they will see things us as teachers are perhaps unable to see at first. This will at times allow them to learn things that ‘can’t be taught’ to find solutions to the problems the game offers.

Finally we know if learning has really occurred if something occurs within the game. Being able to perform an isolated technique whilst under no pressure is not the same as being able to perform a skill in the volatile and dynamic environment of a game, even one that has been modified to reduce complexity.

The game is….not the teacher. The teacher is the teacher. This is a personal philosophical viewpoint but the game does not teach. A child may learn from the game, but what they learn is through their own perception or ability. By playing the game, they can discover and refine them. Teaching through a games based approach means we as teachers purposefully bring something new to the situation, enhance or accelerate something that the child can already perceive or do. Through teaching we can either progress a child’s ability to a point that they couldn’t achieve on their own just by playing the game, or widen or deepen their perspective and understanding of the game.

In Benny Franks recent post, “the game as a teacher” reconceptualising an abstract coaching term, he describes the teacher as an architect of the game, or a designer of the learning environment. Within a games based approach this means the teacher can manipulate the environment of the game; the players, the space, the complexity, the goals for an enhancement or acceleration of learning to occur. If through modifying the game, we are unable to progress the child’s understanding or ability beyond what they can learn in the game themselves, then we are not teaching.

Teaching works by bringing something different to the child. Something that they might not have been able to conceive from their point of view. Enhancing something they already possess, perhaps something beyond the teachers ability to have taught in the first place. Or aligning their perspective with us as the teacher. Something they can’t see without our interaction. If the game can really teach all there is to know, then we as teachers are redundant. We might as well pack up now and go home now. Dan Cotterell highlights some key mistakes that games sense proponents make when using games as their default teaching method. Perhaps this is why the game is so under-utilised or poorly delivered? Teaching via the game is difficult. It requires a deep subject knowledge to question and manipulate the game, a understanding of each indvidual child, intuition when to step in an step back and probably the hardest, patience.

The game is….useful but it is not enough.

Not everything can be learnt through the game though. The game is a resource. A child is in control of their learning. We as teachers are responsible for accelerating or enhancing that learning if they allow us, but that means at times we will be required to take them out of the game. The traditional approaches of skill acquisition have been long lasting for a reason. They are successful. Perhaps automaticity of a certain technique might be hugely advantageous for the child in the context of learning the game. Perhaps certain physical attributes need to be developed to allow the child to access further learning that is unable to be solely developed through the game. This is expertly debated in To Ball or Not to Ball a post on developing fitness in football by The Whitehouse Address.

As a teacher we are responsible for enhancing the learning of the child. Doing this through manipulating and modifying games, asking questions, allowing them to develop solutions to the problems posed and then reflecting on their success or failures can facilitate the child’s learning and understanding of the game. However I believe this will take them only so far. In Doug Lemov‘s post on The Game is the Best Teacher he makes the point that ‘as educators, the responsibility is to try to make every kid as “better” as we can’. The game is useful for this but it is not sufficient. It is our professional judgement as teachers when to step back and allow them to learn from the game, to influence the learning environment of the game or to step in and teach something explicitly. We do this by getting to know our pupils, by observing them and engaging them in dialogue. This will give us all the information we require on when and where to use the game as a teaching and learning tool in PE.

For me the game is the true learning environment, but it is not the teacher. It is the starting point of learning, but it is not a panacea. What is it to you?


16 thoughts on “What the game is…

  1. Great post that sits very close to my own philosophy. I have seen so many trainee/NQT teachers deliver rugby as drills for weeks on end and then witness classes have no real understanding of the actual game (plus not be motivated enough to actual care to find out). Often playing games can be seen by outsiders as “lazy teaching” but with this rationale it is completely worthwhile.


    1. Hi Lee. Firstly thanks for your comment and secondly great to see blogging! (I shall add you to my reading list.) The point you make about motivation is a key and one I still haven’t come to grips with.

      The evidence seems to be clear about what keeps children active and moving into adult life, that of self perception of being competent at moving. A focus solely on competency via isolated drills can be both effective and demotivating. Demotivating means they give up trying and taking part, which means they won’t develop competency. A focus solely on enjoyment and fun doesn’t necessarily equate to developing skills and therefore competency meaning there is less of a chance of them staying active and healthy as adults.

      I’m hoping becoming a more effective teacher of games based approaches will achieve both.


  2. The game approach is critical to effective learning,but requires quality teaching. If the teacher manipulates and modifies the games, questions students, pauses to utilise the “teachable” moments, incorporates quality skill development where required and creates games that allow all students to feel safe to challenge themselves, the learning is impressive.


    1. Hi Karen. I absolutely agree with you. If we add to your wonderful list: provides opportunities for pupils to develop solutions to the problems faced, implement, reflect and refine them with the knowledge that failure is part of the learning process, we have a powerful method of teaching sports within the games context. However very few, including myself, do this consistently well. It requires a deeper subject knowledge, a deep understanding of the children playing and an intuition when to step in and change things or explicitly teach and when to step back and let them take ownership. To teach through games well is a very difficult thing to achieve, perhaps this is the main reason I see it being used infrequently and poorly?


  3. I found this fascinating, thank you. It very much reflects the way we work in early years settings. The children learn through play, and what they learn may vary, but the role of the teacher is still hugely important and influential in enhancing the learning. This reminds me a lot of the debates that go on around discrete teaching within other subjects, e.g. grammar within writing. The writing is the ‘learning environment’ and by separating out the grammar part you run the risk of taking away the motivation and the joy.


    1. Hello Sue. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      In PE and Sport (where I have a slightly deeper understanding than other subjects) it is clear that learning and performing are inherently linked to emotions. You can see this from the very top performers in the world when they choke, to the young children who get nervous in PE. The key emotions linked to learning at a young age are ones associated with failure and the belief of inadequacy. You can see it when a child is in a bad mood, because something has happened in their personal life, that hardly any learning is going to occur in that lesson. In fact it becomes a real struggle just to motivate them to move and be active. Setting the context of learning of skills in games, at least from a secondary school perspective, can promote much more of an emotional investment from the child to help with their motivation. The balance has always been getting children to enjoy moving, but also getting them competent at moving which from the research shows is a much stronger driver of life long physical activity. I feel that a games based approach can do both successfully, if done well, which is where my focus for professional development is taking me.


    1. Thanks Dudley, I hope you have found it of some use. I’m still trying to get my thoughts straight in my head about the use of a games based approach. This is my attempt at that and no doubt I will come back to it over the course of the next few years to challenge and refine my thinking and actions.


  4. I have recently moved from a State comprehensive school to an Independent school. I approached the teaching in an open minded sense, following the systems the school had in place. I may say that I was skeptical about the amount of time given to “games” and what I had perceived as the over dependence on these sessions. Coming from a Levels background I was conditioned that skills base was the only approach to develop pupils. I can only speak from my own stand point and my school, but I am able to show greater progression across a wider range of pupils with a games approach. You need to guide the session, you need to feed in skills development where needed, you need to mold and guide the “flowing stream” that is the pupils learning; But I am a firm believer that the games approach has helped my student enjoy and develop along a wide front.
    I have pupils from all ability ranges want to play school competitions, house and to go to local clubs.
    At the end of their academic life all I want is for them to want to continue to participate, in anything! If they love it then maybe that is the key?


    1. Hi Dan,

      The difficulty is to manage their competency and their enjoyment. Too much focus on competency within a sport can lead to demotivated and interested children. Too much focus on enjoyment and just playing the game might not develop competency which is one of the key drivers of life long involvement in physical activity and sport.

      I do believe a games based approach to teaching sport can manage both effectively, but it requires us as teachers and coaches to expertly manipulate the constraints of the game, question rather than tell, allow them to find their own solutions to the problems they face and give time to implement, reflect and refine them. I think this is a much harder way of teaching than through a traditional isolated drills session because it requires the teacher or the coach to have greater subject knowledge of the sport and a deeper awareness and understanding of the children in their care. However it is often mistake for ‘just throw them the ball and they will learn’. Dan Cottrell makes some very good points about this in a blog post called Why do Game Sense coaches get it so wrong http://coach-plus.com/gamesensecoaches/ Good luck with your new style of coaching. I would love to hear how it is going in the future.


  5. Architecture is a helpful way to think about a games approach. Thanks for that insight. We are designing the space in which a person has an experience. I agree that it is essential and yet not sufficient. I lean a little on Timothy Gallwey and his idea that coaching is about focusing the learner’s attention. Knowing where to ask them to focus, in order to learn from the experience is part of the art of teaching or coaching.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment Tim. I haven’t read anything by Gallwey but he is always mentioned to me in a positive manner. Perhaps it is time to get his books. I do like the idea of an architect, but feel that can be a little artificial. I’d prefer the idea of us as a gardener, where wild growth is play, pruning is technical coaching and we can look to design and landscape the potential of the garden but in the end have limited control over what will flourish.


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