When I was a kid, I used to look forward to three moments in the school day: P.E., recess, and lunch—in that order.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved school. Other subjects were okay, but my busy body and energetic mind needed to move to engage my brain. I could do this at recess and lunch, but P.E. was my all-time favorite. I was naturally athletic and sporty, and I thrived on competition among my peers. For me, it was a great form of both free play and sports.
Later in life, I figured out that this wasn't the case for all of my peers. For some, P.E. was a drag. It felt more like a daily survival of the fittest, featuring a platform for athletes to shine while everyone else just went through the motions. While I hung onto every activity and every minute of P.E. class, I now know that others found it limiting and even constraining.
And how did I figure this out? I became a P.E. teacher.
How hard can teaching P.E. really be?
During high school, I realized that becoming a P.E. teacher "when I grew up" would allow me to get paid every day for essentially playing. After college, I landed a dream job teaching kindergarten through 5th grade P.E. in my hometown of Barnesville, Minnesota. I had no idea what I was in for.
Let me explain my day as a P.E. teacher by the numbers:
- 400 students per day
- 35 students per class
- 13 sections per day
- 25-minute sections
YIKES! I was in decent physical shape, but teaching P.E. became a daily marathon that my mind couldn’t find the pace for. Transition time didn’t exist, with mere seconds separating each class, and there was little time for free play. Bottom line, after-school naps for Mr. Hodge were lengthy.
I set out to find a better way.
In the summer after that first year as a P.E. teacher, I realized I needed to be more organized. My students needed more time moving and less time listening. With recess being their only other time to have free play and movement, I knew giving them more chances to play in gym was important.
Let’s face it: 25 minutes wasn’t enough time to warm up effectively, learn skills, play games, and provide closure to lessons. It was unrealistic, and my students suffered from the command-style approach. I needed to invest more time into teaching respect, fairness, safety, doing your best, and having fun. I needed to model expectations, teach problem-solving skills, and most importantly, build student-teacher trust. I also needed to be able to trust my students enough to be respectful, fair, and safe, so they could play more and sit less.
It was a tall order, and at first, it might seem like I was going to introduce some formal technique with lots of rules for the students to adapt. But actually, once I started looking at a relationship-building approach, it opened the flood gates to a learning environment of one simple thing—unstructured and free play.
I needed a simple way to introduce unstructured play every single day.
My journey toward unstructured and free play in P.E. class began with warm-up exercises. I couldn’t hold my students' hands through calisthenic warm-ups or tag games with lots of rules. I DIDN’T HAVE TIME. I basically had 15 minutes to effectively teach a skill, practice it, play a game reinforcing the skill, clean the gym, line up, recap the day, and get the kids out the door before my next class came bursting in with energy.
My solution was a simple visual that I called the ASAP (active as soon as possible) chart.
As students entered the gym quietly (i.e., ran as if they were being chased by a bear, full of excitement and chattering about what the activity would be for the day), they knew exactly what they had to do. They looked at the ASAP chart, which I changed daily, where they would get their warm-up instructions for the day. The poster included instructions for three things: who, what, where.
Here is an example of an ASAP warm-up:
WHAT: Jog two laps, then perform 50 reps of your choice.
WHERE: Sit by a friend when finished.
Both the who and where were pretty straightforward. I tried to mix up the what, always giving students options. On the day outlined above, they all jogged a couple laps, and then they chose how to finish the warm-up. (They'd learned the warm-up movements early in the year, so they knew what they had to choose from.) They could pick 10 reps of five different movements, do 50 reps of the same movement—whatever fit their particular style or mood.
Kids love having a say.
The freedom of choice in free play was powerful for my students, and it definitely got more kids excited about P.E. I didn't care how they were moving. I just liked that they were doing so with pride. Best of all, this warm-up activity took my students two minutes at most.
Every day, the sign was different and the numbers changed, but what didn’t change was student choice. This immediately gave them ownership of their P.E. time, and as a bonus, I could grab a drink or water or speak to the teacher from the previous class to talk about how the day's activities went.
Now, I created this warm-up method out of necessity. But as a result, it triggered phenomenal creativity from my students each day. Over the course of the year, they began producing their own movements (upon personal trial I can tell you they were effective) and felt such empowerment every day they stepped into the gym. And all of this was because they started their day with freedom. By providing choices, I had their respect and attention when it was time to move on to the skill and practice portions of the daily lesson.
Unstructured movement to start our day took the pressure off of performance and put the emphasis on something I call explorance. (Yes, I made up that word.) Each day, students had the freedom to mess up, or even make mistakes, without feeling pressured to look, feel, or sound a certain way. They were free to try things on their own, in a creative and interpretive way. It was powerful to watch.
How else could I put the power in the hands of my students?
After the success of the warm-up method, I knew I wanted to find other ways to try it out. So next came what I call PWYP (pick where you play) days.
PWYP is just as simple as it sounds. On these days, I would create eight to 10 areas in the gym, which were outlined on a whiteboard. Students knew the expectations for each area and chose where to play for the day. It was amazing. These were by far their favorite days. It was extra special because students were able to earn these days by making good choices. It also helped a lot more students enjoy P.E. class overall.
Now I know that some teachers support student choice in theory but fear it gives kids too much. "My students can't handle choice. My students won't make the appropriate decision. My students get wild without structure. My class it too big."
We've all heard (or even thought) these things, right? All of these assumptions will come true if students don't understand the expectations. So it's our job as teachers and educators to set them. My students are proof that kids will almost always rise to the occasion. Unstructured play is a complex topic, but it doesn’t have to be. And its popularity doesn't have to continue to decline. The key is trust and forming strong student-teacher relationships.
The benefits of unstructured play stretch far beyond 25 minutes in a gym. It also serves as a prescription for a child’s well-being. Having the freedom to explore movement is so beneficial for physical, cognitive, and emotional learning.