When P.E. Teacher Let His Students Organize their Own Games Outside, He Was Blown Away

They learned to move and try new challenges, but that was just the beginning.

Today’s 19-year-olds are as sedentary as adults age 60. That was the startling discovery of Vadim Zipunnikov, assistant professor in the Bloomberg School’s Department of Biostatistics, a few years back.

And that was before remote learning!

That’s why I was thrilled to discover Active for Life, a Canadian nonprofit and blog brimming with ideas for how to get kids moving around more. Because basically a kid not in motion tends to remain not in motion for the rest of their life.

A post on the blog by P.E. teacher David Benay suggests that P.E. teachers use some of their class time, some of their days, for plain old free play, outside. How come? Benay writes:

I find that some students just shine during free play outside. They move more because they own the game. It’s not me telling them what to do. They are the creators, the organizers, the referees, and the players all at once. That, to me, is what physical literacy is all about.

I once brought a group outside and a few girls organized a game of Capture the Flag (a game I’d taught them the previous year). Their game started with eight players and by the end of the hour, 23 children were playing.

Are kids still learning their P.E. skills if they “just” make up a game?

We tend to think of kids as playing looser and maybe sillier if they’re not in a “real” game — that is, a game organized by an adult. I can imagine some teachers thinking, “Well, they’re having fun. But are they learning their passing skills? Are they learning the rules of softball?”

Sometimes they probably are not. But when kids create their own fun, they are actually more active than when an adult is running the show. And they try out wacky new ideas no adult would ever come up with. They’re getting the movement practice P.E. exists for, and something more. Watching his students outside, Benay saw that:

They used their knowledge and understanding to organize the game. They showed great confidence and motivation to become the needed leaders at the time. Lastly, the students showed their physical competence and engagement in being active. Had I decided what they were going to play, I would have robbed them of that great leadership opportunity.

Why not just save the free-form fun for recess? Alas, Benay writes, recess is often “too short to find friends, organize a game, and play.” So a P.E. class becomes the perfect opportunity for play to flourish.

Another perfect opportunity, by the way, is to have the school host a Let Grow Play Club. (Schools stay open before or after school for mixed-age, no-device, loose-parts play.)

Let’s not rob kids of the double-win of free play: Physical AND social-emotional stretching. We don’t want students turning into sedentary old slugs just because they have never had a chance to discover how easy it is to create fun: Just add other kids and start moving!