A Hard-Soft PE

Thematic teaching offers an umbrella students can return to to make their own connections.  It provides a constant amidst the chaos to formulate conclusions and test variables against.  Stepping back and trying to see the bigger picture of my classes, patterns of hardness and softness kept emerging.  Games, spaces, personalities, sports, movements, communication, behaviors, motivations… they all revolved around these two qualities.  Most found comfort in residing in one or the other, but those who could shift between the two and/or simultaneously have a foot in both demonstrated the largest capacity to perform and progress.

Hardness can be defined as aggressiveness, taking, being resolute.  A showing of strength and grit that lifts the speed and intensity of the activity.  Softness is a gentle calming.  An openness to exist in rest.  It slows and maximizes efficiency, looking to conserve and linger in the nuances of subtlety.  Softness seeks to minimize chaos while hardness utilizes it as a derivative.

Understanding that each held value yet were singularly preferred based on past survival strategies, I wondered whether I could use Phys Ed to both expose an enamor kids with the side they were unfamiliar with.  Could a class students had to take be one of opening and expanding — both in who they believed they were and what they believed they could do?  Could we unfix the fixed mindset of what is good and bad and really dig in to what was?


Examining these dualities might be the connective lens in which they could examine themselves.


I attempted to use the external means of attention and environment to cultivate these elements internally.


The addition of ‘the soft room’ this year gave us a new habitat for contextual study.  It was self contained and offered privacy and dimmed lighting.  It had soft, matted floors that invited laying/ rolling on and soft plyo boxes that welcomed stacking and climbing upon.  In short, it became a safe space for being vulnerable and rouse the aliveness of risk.

This is where we did our deep introspective work.  Where we could embrace our misgivings and supplant doubt with possibility.  In this room we considered things.   We had deep discussions.  We listened.

It offered a contrast to almost everything a traditional gymnasium supplants.  Random people constantly walking through.  Harsh fluorescent lighting.  Memories of demands and being forced.  Of recognizing you’re inferior.  Where trying not to look foolish gave way to simply not trying at all.  To be one in a line of many desperately trying to stay invisible.

Of course, it could also be a place of energy and excitement.  Of triumph and ebullient celebrations, teamwork, pride, and picking each other up.  For those who enjoyed PE as they knew it, this place of sameness and experience was a positive influence.  But I couldn’t help but notice those doing their best to stay ‘out of it’.  What about them?  What could they teach us if we asked?

The weight room, too, is a place of work and toughness.  Of metal clanging and gruntings of effort.  This group likes to get things done and be pushed to their limit.  They conquer lists and tasks instead of people or games.  Driven by completion, asking why or how seems inefficient.  Constantly stiff and seeing suffering as a badge of honor, the hardened are the ones who need softness most of all.


We like living in extremes.  It helps us define who we are and how to be without thinking too much.


We inhabited all of these spaces and I noted and observed how behaviors changed within them.  When and where the stimulation of the challenge exceeded (or nullified) their capacity to interact with it, I gave them particular points of feedback to notice.  Then I would step back and silently watch whether they could internalize this information (demonstrated by increased engagement).  This cycle of breaking down and practicing pieces gives them the confidence to keep venturing toward the unknown.


The purpose of a ball in any game, task, or sport is to simply focus attention.  It is the perspective from which one attacks or defends the surrounding space.  Apart from the four foot radius in which the ball resides, enormous blind spots exist.  Unpracticed and unlooked at, (and fostered by their habitual input from mini screens) kids seem to be loosing their broad field of vision:

Zooming in and zooming out of chain link diamonds in the fence.  Making a cohesive diagonal line while looking forward was shockingly difficult, particularly when walking backwards and prioritizing expansive, peripheral sight lines.


Remove the ball (and their phones) and their attention will fixate on other people.  Teens are supremely social beings, and are motivated by their interest in those around them.  Partner work is the most accessible cure to participation leaks, but they must given control over whom they pair with.  Couplings make the skill work personal and immediate.  They want to please or defeat and paying attention will make them successful (both at the task and the relationship).


Care and attention are irrevocably intertwined.  We cannot give regard to that which we are unaware of.


Although there were ways of cueing internal attention toward movements in any environment, the soft room offered the most direct means of getting them to scrutinize what was happening within them.   At rest, there is not even the distraction of movement.  We learned what being/ turning off feels like, and that even in this state there is plenty to monitor and focus on.  Perceived nothingness is actually rife with sensation if you know how to look for it.

Where does your breath go?  What are you breathing with?  Can you fill the empty spaces with air?  Can you breathe into the ground?

How does a body part ask for your attention?  What is your response?  Do you freeze it and force it to stay?  Do you let it go, allowing it to move or relax exactly as you somehow know it needs to?  Which is the more caring act?


In rough sports and games, they were given the green light to do all the things they had previously been told not to.  Can’t take it out of their hands.  Don’t foul.  Stop Wrestling.  Without set lines forbidden to be crossed, they came to unspoken agreements on how far they could go.  They set appropriate boundaries all on their own.


During soft skills and games, I tried to stay particularly attuned to their engagement.  Outside of the frenzy of balls and teams, did their form suggest they were communicating?  The energy is different but not lacking.  You are assessing an atmosphere of focus.

When paired in either hard or soft work, their use of touch was fascinating.  Was it restrained in either context?  Did a comfort in one translate to the other?  Could they distinguish the intent between care and carelessness, and develop strategies to investigate both?


Perhaps the imagery of an island is a better thematic metaphor than that of an umbrella.  It is meant to be comforting rather than restrictive.   It offers you a home base to relax in or adventure from/ upon — a continuum of contrast sharing a place and time.  Serving as a guide and point of self-reflective relevance, the threading filament is one of compassion.



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