Advocating for Meaningful Experiences in PE

The mystery

Every day PE Teachers are trying to help children to move, with the aim of them becoming adults that move, but there is a mystery for us to solve. Habitual daily movement clearly has a positive correlation with a large number of beneficial outcomes that we would all want to have in our lives. The benefits of movement are countless and are growing each year yet as a population we are becomingly increasingly sedentary. This is the great mystery for PE Teachers to help try and solve.

A recent health survey found only 20.3% of children aged 5–15 years old are meeting the physical activity recommendations. When sedentary adults are asked why they do not move, they point to Physical Education as a key factor.

For example, research carried by the University of Birmingham in 2014 tried to find out what influence PE had on young people’s physical activity. It was clear from the results, people’s poor experiences of PE, can have a negative impact on their physical activity behaviours as an adult. In some cases their best memory of PE was when it was finally finished.

Whilst the factors that cause sedentary behaviours are complex, it is important to consider how PE might start to address some of the trends of inactivity. Whilst PE might not solve this issue on its own, perhaps it should look to solve the problems of its own making – that of children’s negative experiences.

A potential solution

A potential solution might be found in the way PE teachers frame movement to children. Preventing disease, fighting obesity and improving fitness are no doubt important, but are they firstly going to get children to move and then secondly keep them moving beyond school and into adulthood?

To be sure, objectives related to good health can be one source of a personally meaningful physical education experience. Nevertheless, research suggests that good reasons, even health-based reasons, do not sustain activity long enough for new habits to replace older, less healthy behaviour patterns. Rather than continuing to prioritise health-based reasons to move, PE Teachers could offer something more personally meaningful to the children

The philosophy

Through the years there have been many advocates for a more meaningful model of physical education. One such advocate is Scott Kretchmar, a philosopher of sport and physical activity. He states that physical activity must be meaningful if children are to adopt an active lifestyle.

Kretchmar suggests a number of features of meaningful experiences; they are fun, challenge, social interaction, increased motor competence and delight. By emphasising these features to ensure that experiences within physical education are satisfying, children can find personal meaning and increase the chance that they might commit to a physical active lifestyle.

The evidence

Researchers from Canada and Ireland decided to look at the literature regarding young people’s meaningful experiences in physical education and youth sport. Five features were identified as central influences on meaningful experiences in PE and youth sport – they were similar to Kretchmar’s. There was a lack of evidence for delight, but an alternative feature of personally relevant learning was identified. These features provide a framework for the design and implementation of meaningful experiences within physical education.

The role of social interaction has the power to make experiences meaningful, meaningless or harmful. PE Teachers need to be aware of the positive and negative consequences of social interactions, therefore they must look to intentionally plan for them with regards to movement.

Fun is a necessary but insufficient feature of meaningful experiences. It is key in hooking children into movement as it is often a primary reason for liking an activity, but fun on its own isn’t adequate to keep children coming back to the activity.

Children often want to engage in activities that provide adequate levels of challenge. Not challenging enough, the activity becomes boring very quickly. Too challenging and motivation for participation will decrease. As Goldilocks would agree, we need challenges that are just right!

The development of motor competence has a significant role within meaningful experiences. There is a positive correlation between actual and perceived motor control with enjoyment, effort and sustained participation with movement

There wasn’t sufficient evidence for delight to be considered but there was enough for personally relevant meaning in contributing to meaningful experiences to warrant its inclusion as a key feature. Children are interested in understanding what they are learning in PE, why it is important, and how it relates to their lives beyond the classroom.

So how can a PE Teacher who is interested in providing meaningful experiences apply the framework?

Practical applications

PE Teachers who subscribe to the creation of meaningful experiences, are influenced not just by the achievement of learning objectives but by the value the learner attributes to all forms of movement and to PE itself. This can be done practically in three ways; teacher reflection-on-action, teacher reflection-in-action and children reflection-on-action.

Teacher reflection on-action is an explicit approach. This is implemented by having a shared clear vision of what PE could offer, by thoughtfully choosing the activities, pedagogical approaches and assessments that align with the features and to help children notice the significance of movement experiences in enhancing that quality of their daily lives.

It can also be achieved through teacher reflection-in-action when making professional judgements and decision making whilst teaching. This requires a PE Teacher to be attentive to the key features of meaningful experiences and by being adaptive. By stepping back and observing, or engaging children in dialogue the teacher can begin to see what features can be tweaked to create a more meaningful experience. Guiding principles can help a teacher become more attuned to the creation of meaningful experiences.

This means meaningful experiences in PE is an emergent pedagogy, rather than a linear one. The teacher needs to attend to what is unfolding in front of them and then use the features as a decision-making framework. A good way to think of this is music equaliser. By amplifying or dampening one or a combination of the meaningful features teachers can begin to prioritise meaning over other matters.

Finally teachers can get children to reflect-on-action to find meaning. Justen O’Connor provides a very clear pedagogy of meaning making to guide children through a reflection process. Valuing movement in physical education is not a simple matter of introducing children to a range of activities and the child grasping them, but an ongoing process of creating, building and refining a narrative of why movement is personally important to them.

Meaningful PE is not dependent on upon all criteria being present in an experience or reliant on any one of the criteria, but rather the way they are combined, intersect, are layered and interpreted by the children. By using guiding principles, having a wide range of ideas and approaches in the tool box, by using a pedagogy of meaning making and by being adaptable the teacher can begin to focus on making decisions that promote meaningful experiences within lessons.


PE will always take a number of different forms and is experienced by children, in a variety of more or less positive or negative ways, with a range of consequences for their involvement in physical activity, recreation and sport both in and out of school. However, if PE is to be embraced by all and regarded as a site that promotes lifelong and life wide learning then the meanings attached to movement by children are worthy of the teacher’s attention. Perhaps we need to move the more subjective experiences to a more central part of our curriculums, because if we get teaching for meaning right then surely, we will get teaching for health as part of the outcome.

Further Information

If you, like me, are interested to making physical education a more meaningful experience for the children that you teach I recommend you follow the blog LAMPE – Learning About Meaningful Experiences in PE, especially the case studies they have of PE Teachers who are using the framework. You can read the review paper by Stephanie Beni and Colleagues on Meaningful Experiences in PE and Youth Sport for a deeper understanding of the evidence that supports it.

Finally I shall leave you with some words of Scott Kretchmar – When movement is experienced as joy, it adorns our lives, makes our days go better, and gives us something to look forward to.  When movement is joyful and meaningful, it may even inspire us to do things we never thought possible.


Beni, S., Fletcher, T., Ní Chróinín, D. (2017). Meaningful experiences in physical education and youth sport: A review of the literature. Quest, 69(3), 291-312.

Beni, S., Fletcher, T., Ní Chróinín, D. (2018). Using features of meaningful experiences to guide primary physical education practice. European Physical Education Review

Ennis C. D. (2017) Educating Students for a Lifetime of Physical Activity: Enhancing Mindfulness, Motivation, and Meaning. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 88:3, 241-250

Fletcher, T., Ní Chróinín, D. & O’Sullivan, M. (2018): Developing deep understanding of teacher education practice through accessing and responding to pre- service teacher engagement with their learning, Professional Development in Education

Green, K. (2014) Mission impossible? Reflecting upon the relationship between physical education, youth sport and lifelong participation, Sport, Education and Society, 19:4, 357-375

Kretchmar, R. S. (2005). Practical philosophy of sport and physical activity. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics

Kretchmar, R. S. (2006). Ten more reasons for quality physical education. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 77(9), 6–9.

Kretchmar, R. S. (2008). The increasing utility of elementary school physical education: A mixed blessing and unique challenge. The Elementary School Journal, 108, 161–170

Lambert, K. (2020). Re-conceptualizing embodied pedagogies in physical education by creating pre-text vignettes to trigger pleasure ‘in’movement. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 25(2), 154-173.

Learning About Meaningful Physical Education blog series about Meaningful PE

Lynch, S., & Sargent, J. (2020). Using the meaningful physical education features as a lens to view student experiences of democratic pedagogy in higher education. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 1-14.

Meaningful PE Podcast with Dr. Tim Fletcher (@TimFletcher12), Dr. Déirdre Ní Chróinín (@meaningfulPE), Andy Vasily (@andyvasily), Zack Smith (@mrzackpe), and Jorge Rodriguez (@physednow)

Ní Chróinín, D., Beni, S., Fletcher, T., Griffin, C., & Price, C. (2019). Using meaningful experiences as a vision for physical education teaching and teacher education practice. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 24(6), 598-614.

O’Connor J. (2018) Exploring a pedagogy for meaning-making in physical education. European Physical Education Review

Playing with Research in Health and PE Podcast – Meaningfulness in PE with Stephanie Beni & Dr. Tim Fletcher

Ty Riddick‘s Meaningful Experiences in PE Observation Matrix and Strategies to Promote Meaningful PE

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