Kids on a playground at recess choose their environment. They enjoy it because there are no expectations — nothing has to be done nor are they confined to a singular place. They can be around people or take space for themselves. Self-selection allows them to control their experience.
Age them five to ten years, and the rampant ‘run-amuckness’ turns to sits and leans. They just want to talk to one another. Classrooms encourage this behavior. They sit in desks faced a certain way. They are asked to do the same things and read out of the same book. They are trained in being told what to do.
They are given markers of time in which to complete things. It is assumed they have the same basic level of skills and abilities, and this baseline (or benchmark) becomes the starting point for potential growth. Double or triple the number of students, place them in a very large room with no clear place to sit, and tell them they need to change their clothes. If only the locker rooms were phone booths.
They have become complacent to idleness. Perhaps in middle school they were chastised for climbing or running or roughhousing because they weren’t supposed to. Only do when you are given direction to. We made things this way. We did this to them. The educational system that rewards compliance made them passively (and often reluctantly) engage in whatever they were forced to do.
To undo this, we must give them back what was taken from them.
It does not happen in one fell swoop. ‘Open gym’ is not the answer. Left to their own devices, most will do as little as possible. They need to be retaught confidence and regain childhood wonder. PE should be the place where anything is possible.
Question 1 – Who do I want to play with?
This is paramount. Let them select their own partners. Most days begin with some kind of partner work so interaction is high. This segue ways into smaller groups of four, eventually building to eight or more. The goal is to keep building inclusion. Do not let them get lost amongst the numbers. Keep things at a size where there is doing and everyone seems to know their role.
When we play in a larger group game, I often let kids pick teams. Captains step up or are volunteered. I will always pick for kids who are reluctant, as I do not want to rob kids of leadership roles. When we get down to about the last third, I finish the teams. I don’t want anyone to feel bad for being left behind. The last person typically gets to pick which team they want to join. The power structure inverts.
Question 2 – What are we going to do?
Once socially safe, they are ready to try. Space, however, will dictate how many different things you can have going on at one time. We have a curtain that splits our gym, and we typically have a game side and a practice side. Other words used would be ‘ready’ and ‘still learning’, ‘fast and aggressive’ and ‘slower and more broken down’. The goal is always to bring the skill side up so everyone can integrate. The game side, by comparison, received less instruction and played independently more.
If I saw the same errors occurring on the game side, I would break their section down into partner drills to address it. These would be brief and to the point. Then I would observe if they made changes during the game. The practice side would carry on with what was presented to them yesterday while I did this. Two separate games would occur before integration so I could observe application and break things down further as necessary.
Three to four times a semester, I give them access to everything and see what happens. We don’t all have to stay in the gym. Some go outside, some to the mat room, some to the weight room. Supervision wise, I simply bounce between areas. I notice what they choose, who they go with, and I ask them questions. I do not berate them if I find them sitting (or bouncing up from sitting). I simply ask why, with non-threatening sincerity, and they tell me. They usually have excellent reasons.
I ask them to own their decisions, which is a part of life. The ‘I don’t knows’ are given scaled options to the space and stuff they chose. I present ideas to those that struggle with ideas. Should it be affirmed that they are understood and still remain unappealing, I let them be with a smile. Showing me what they would do without direction and/or consequence is very valuable information.
Question 3 – How comfortable am I with this?
As kids age, the discomfort grows. There are comparative differences and negative experiences burned into their brain. Identity forming creates a narrative that is narrowing. We combat this by actually making them better at what it is we ask them to do, and keep asking that they do different things.
Teens like to do what they are good at. They’ve carved themselves a niche through interest. They spend time there, honing and investigating. Rules are created to govern their actions.
The answer is to upend the rules and present new games for them to play. Games may or may not be sports. They’re typically slivers of person versus person. Instead of trying to defeat a whole team, what if I just focused on one thing, and then added one additional component or opponent? Get them capable in one thing and they are more apt to attempt the next.
Question 4 – How far can we go?
Concepts are presented and practiced in layers. We will go as far as their interest and engagement pursues. How willing are they to touch or try? They determine the level of physicality and risk. Want it? Take it. Want to help a teammate? Get in the other team’s way. Social agreements dictate active agreements dictate comfort agreements. I do not provide boundaries for them. They determine the path they want to take, and I support their curiosities.