Purposeful PE

The goal of this post is to state my current thinking with regards to Purposeful Physical Education. It is not meant to persuade you, the reader, that this is the ‘correct way’ or the ‘only way’ to approach Physical Education. It is a post to help clarify my thoughts. To see if my actions, judgements and decisions are congruent with my thinking. I hope to come back to this post throughout 2017 to check, review and challenge whether this is truly the case.

If PE is to be purposeful, then we must be clear on its purpose. In the last few years our purpose has gone through many iterations, being influenced by many different sources, particularly external bodies. We have tried to come up with something that fits our context and have been constantly reflecting on it and refining. I know members of my department have found this a waste of time. However I don’t think revisiting the basics, of which purpose is one, can be done too many times. All PE departments I think can benefit from going back to their purpose and spending time to uncover all the hidden assumptions and differences of opinion that might provide the foundation for clarifying it. Our agreed purpose is:

Better Movers, Better People: To empower children to move on their own terms“.

Having a clear purpose helps to align all individuals which then allows debate and discussion of the potential ways of achieving it. In terms of content our thinking is more developed. We agree that to empower children to move on their own terms our curriculum has to provide learning in four domains; the physical, cognitive, social and affective. I have written about this in more detail here and here. The next step is to confirm some essential agreements of curriculum content we will use to hold our teaching to account.

This post though will focus more on the framework of delivery of the content. These thoughts are mine alone and act as principles to guide decisions about my teaching in PE.

Purposeful Play:

Play is the true environment of movement, where we can observe children to see what support they need and to see what they have learnt. Without setting PE in play do we lose the risk of losing it’s meaning? Play is meaningful in it’s own right and we do not need to justify PE via targets, outcomes and metrics beyond the involvement in the activities children are participating in. Daryl Siedentop in Physical Education: Introductory Analysis argued,

Play is the proper classification for physical education, both from a logical and psychological perspective. Classifying physical education as a form of play puts it clearly in perspective alongside other primary institutionalized forms of play—art, music, and drama. . . . This classification allows us to recognize that the activities of the weekend golfer or skier . . . and the noon-time hand- ball player are analogous to that of the painter, the member of the community theater, or the musician. Each is at play, at an institutionalized form of play, and it is only the play form that distinguished one from the other.

However I do believe play in PE should be structured and purposeful.  There needs to be clear and explicit learning outcomes of each game played or movement puzzle proposed. Play in PE should not by a ‘roll out the ball’ approach to teaching movement or sport, but a (co) structured environment of playing with purpose.

Purposeful Preparation:

Some children do struggle with play, even in it’s simplest of forms. To help children to access play, purposeful preparation would be needed. This is a structured physical skill development through the PE curriculum which could provide pupils the chance to acquire the behavioral, psychological and movement skills that increase the likelihood of physical play and lifelong physical activity. There is a relationship between enjoyment, self-determination, and perceived competence. Purposeful preparation focuses on on improving physical and psycho-behavioural skill competence with the hope of improving and supporting the conditions of children’s involvement in play.

Purposeful Practice:

There are those children where performance in play is just as important as participation (if not more important for them). In essence, deliberate practice is a highly effortful and structured activity with the explicit goal of improving performance (as compared to play) through specific tasks designed to overcome current levels of weakness. Therefore any practice must be intentional, aimed at improving competence, designed for our children’s current skill level, combined with immediate feedback and repetitious. The most effective approach to improving performance all follow a set of general principles of practice.

The start and the end of purposeful PE is play, but it isn’t in my opinion a panacea. We must watch the children in our care play and then decide how best to support them. This for me is a choice between purposeful preparation (to help them access play) and purposeful practice (to help them further develop their play). It is a dynamic flowing process of moving from play to either practice or preparation back to play. Making judgements and decisions based on constant observation and dialogue. Purposeful Play, practice and preparation can provide the physical, cognitive, social and affective tools children needed to empower them to move on their own terms and enrich their lives.

Further Reading:

Just let them play? Deliberate preparation as the most appropriate foundation for lifelong physical activity

“Deliberate Preparation” as an Evidence-Based Focus for Primary Physical Education

Pragmatism, Purpose, and Play: Struggle for the Soul of Physical Education

Meaningful Experiences in Physical Education and Youth Sport: A Review of the Literature

Deliberate Play and Preparation Jointly Benefit Motor and Cognitive Development: Mediated and Moderated Effects

Practice and Play in the development of Sport Expertise

20 thoughts on “Purposeful PE

  1. Hi there, I think you make some really interesting points and that within ‘play’ there does need to be some structure and a desired learning outcome/objectives. However I think sometimes we can make things to difficult, we include so much detail in our lesson plans that we forget that all these children want to do is to play a real life version of that sport. If I am teaching an invasion game such as rugby I like get kids playing straight away and as the lesson progress gradually introduce rules, laws, constraints on the game etc.

    As a trainee teacher this approach has always worked for me and it will be interesting to see whether the same approach works on my next placement!


    1. Hi Jordan, I fully agree. For many years I believed children needed the skills to play. Now I think they need context for them to have a understanding of why we might be learning certain skills, rules or principles. One of the biggest things I’ve learnt in my time as a PE Teacher is that skill acquisition requires time and patience. Simplifying lessons and ensuring mastery, if possible, whilst in a representative environment is both more effective and motivating for the children under my care and supervision.


      1. Hi Sporticus, Just stumbled on this from a retweet. Thought I would add something to the purpose here.

        “To empower children to move on their own terms“. I really do like this as a purpose but I wonder if it is actually achievable or aspirational. If you want an achievable purpose I would encourage you to put a caveat on it. Empowerment is slippery because in order for someone who is oppressed to gain power, typically someone else has to forgo it. We can’t just create buckets of power for young people, we can’t readily hand it over to them. Power exists in structures. Yes education is somewhat emancipatory, but power must still be negotiated. The last part of this, ‘…move on their own terms’, is also rather individualistic and problematic if you break it down. It doesn’t really appreciate that we can never really move on our own terms. We are always being constrained. By culture (look at adult movement compared to young children, play vs sport, gender, ability…), our environments (spaces, places, weather, transport, all limit or enhance movement – not always on our terms), our socio-economic position (cost, access, mobility, equipment), our bodily limitations, our knowledge and skills etc. So movement is very much a product of our terms AND the terms of our social ecologies. So the danger in this purpose is that in our noble attempts to empower the individual, we ignore the reality that young people will still be forced to move according to wider socio ecological factors, not all within their power to address. I think this should also be part of a physical education. Learning what power structures exist that shape our own movement and acknowledging that sometimes there aint a lot any one individual can do about it.This in itself I think is emancipatory (educationally worthwhile) even though it seems a bit helpless and sort of depressing. But, if nothing else we aren’t selling false hope and we are starting to challenge these power structures through understanding them. We ask questions like: Why is this so and what can we collectively (rather than individually) do about it? What sort of world do we want to live in?

        Nice post – Justen

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this post. It is clear, concise and offers perspective on the important balance between meaning, purpose, and fun. It also supports the need for quality physical education programs in the overall development of students – educating the whole child!


    1. The more I have experience of our curriculum the more I see that the four domains of learning are interconnected and impact each other. In the end I’m mainly interested in improving their motor competence and the confidence. However I don’t think this can be approached solely through learning in the physical domain. How I child focuses, how they interact with each and what declarative knowledge they possess can all impact on their motor development. It then becomes an interesting puzzle to try and solve with what to teach.


  3. I enjoyed your article. I thought I would just share my perspective in response to your thoughts.

    Re: purpose of pe

    I recognize that everyone has their own conception of what the purpose of pe is. For me, it is based on ltad and centers on the idea that the purpose of pe is to develop physical literacy beginning w fundamental movement skills, and the fundamental sport skills for all activity dimensions (indiv, games, gymnastics, alt environments, and dance).

    Re. Purposeful play

    I don’t agree with you that play is the true environment of movement. My thoughts are that physical literacy before peak height velocity is the goal. This is attained through opportunities for instruction in sport skills that take place on the land, in the water, in the air, and on ice and snow. The important work of physical literacy occurs before adolescent growth spurt. It is my belief that if children are physically literate at 12 years old it is much more likely that they will be active as adults

    Re purposeful preparation

    Agree very much that academic rigour present in the teaching of other academic subjects needs to live in pe instruction as well. How is it that learning outcomes from the program of studies are being attended to and assessed. It’s not good enough to just develop a positive disposition to physical activity. Hattie’s Visible Learning research applies to pe as well.

    Re purposeful practice

    Very much agree that deliberate practice is what moves learning ahead

    Again. Thanks for your thoughts. I enjoyed reading your blog


    1. Hi Ray.

      Thanks for your thoughtful and deep response. Could you give the definition of Physical Literacy you subscribe to? There are so many out there I’m confused. My own understanding of PL is from Whitehead and that it is a disposition. “The disposition develops as a result of practitioners involving participants in a rich variety of positive and rewarding experiences. As a result of these experiences participants make progress in their physical literacy journey.” https://www.physical-literacy.org.uk/about/frequently-asked-questions/ Whilst I think the philosophy that underpins PL can guide our decisions I’m yet to see it’s practical value within our teaching. Also physical literacy isn’t something achieved? I thought it is dynamic and changes through our life-course? A good PE curriculum can help develop PL, but I’m not convinced yet of its place within the curriculum. However I will remain open minded as it is a philosophy that has much to offer.

      With regards to issues with ‘play’ what do you see is the true environment for movement? I will always see play as the interaction between the individual, the movement they can produce and the environment which they are in. A person using a squat movement when climbing is play. A person using a squat movement in rugby is play. A person using a squat movement in parkour is play. A person using a squat movement in gymnastics is play. Can you offer me a better true environment for movement than play that isn’t isolated, decontextualised and offers no meaning?

      Thank you for your critique. It has made me reflect on my thinking with regards to Purposeful PE which is extremely helpful.


  4. Thank you for sharing such rich reflection and very clear direction of how your department is holding itself to values and then can also be held accountable to the expectations of the purpose of your program rather than ‘I think that..’ which makes these issues so personal and creates professional conflict. I do hope to read more of your thinking here and see how you get on once the year gets into flow. Thank you also for the resources shared to support your thinking and for us to read as we consider our own programs. I have also found it important to discuss the four domains in context of purpose as often the department can find that these are skewed with different ones being of more primary importance – but it is clear that you need all of them if you want to have an effective program. It is also important to discuss how you are explicitly teaching them as often PE people are very clear on the skill and strategic purpose and plan but not sure about affective or social explicit teaching and student learning as a progression over the program.


    1. The explicit teaching of knowledge/skills within all four areas is where we are probably going to spend the next few years. I think we want to clearly identify some essential agreements that as a department we all subscribe to teach. I keep thinking about 10 key ones in area that we keep coming back to over the course of the five years. Teach less, but make sure they master it. The question then becomes what knowledge/skills to teach?


  5. Good to see the emphasis on purposeful. I would add the following suggestions.

    Purposeful implies that what a PE Dept. provides for their students demonstrates that:

    They are clear about what and why they are providing as learning and meaningful opportunities.
    There are good reasons for their choice.
    They are seen them valuable by staff and students
    They are in tune with the department’s aspirations
    The opportunities are relevant to the students’ needs and interests
    There is a progressive pathway for student’s development

    Len and Val Almond


    1. Hi Len and Val.

      Thank you for your insightful comments. I think I will use this as a guide in one of our PE Department meetings to try and align our purpose even more. Very helpful to guide a meaningful dialogue about purpose and provision within the PE Department.


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