PE as the Incubator of Risk

Physical Education classes have gotten bigger over the course of the pandemic.  The powers that be have knowingly placed too many kids within too small an area.  Like athletics, it seems to have a separate set of rules that allow anything to happen, and yet, wildly, there is this underlying assumption that whatever is asked of PE and the PE teacher will be OK.  Though COVID has highlighted vast chasm between PE and the rest of campus, the many effects of the virus will not be the emphasis of this article.  Instead, I will attempt to cast a light on the larger, more long term tendency that is crippling Physical Education — the fact that anyone, at any time is haphazardly added to the roster.  There is no cohesion of who, which means there is no cohesion of what.

Classes are filled by available space,

and there is ALWAYS space available in PE.


Mixing a bunch of people from a bunch of different backgrounds and needs and skills and personalities and communication styles is a socially risky endeavor.   It forces the teacher handed such a group to create pockets of safety.  It means separations and groupings and ‘special’ assignments, while also forging some semblance of whole class homogeny.   Social freedom and social pressure is manipulated to try and provoke maximal participation.

Participating is typically defined as ‘some level of activity’, and activity is an observable behavior.  However, there is an assumption that participation is easy and natural because these are young people.  Young equals energy which equals playfulness.  This is the same assumption the administration has when they pump the gym full of students.  Observe a day or two of open gym with no strings attached (it’s OK to sit and simply be and actually do what you want to do), though, and the vast majority is perfectly content sitting on their phones.  This is their preference of playing and interacting — disappearing through sameness of seen action, but individually having control over their attention and level of stimulation.

Any act of doing in a public setting carries with it an inherent risk.  The perceived level of risk is determined by the environment, skill, and experience of the person placed within it.  When familiarity = safety and the most comfortable and familiar has become not doing, a class based on doing creates all kinds of stressors and conflicts.

Social Threat

Being seen illuminates.  If you are not good at a game, your flaws and weaknesses come to light.  Your teammates get mad at you and speak/ react in frustration and/or disappointment.  When there is such a large swath in skill, experience, and ability, there is a very real fear of not being good enough, and everybody knowing it.  Many would rather shut down and not play then endure that kind of humiliation (be it actual or imagined; reality is internalized).

Mediating this:  giving students choice between practice and game sides divided by a curtain, green-lighting unseen independent work during class time, peer grading (which I will write an entire post about soon).

Complications:  number of students, lack of available space, amount of time and energy required to offer options, trust, ownership, and personal responsibility

Mental Anxiety

All of the internal pressures that effect esteem and performance.  How they see themselves continually reflected and reinforced by the perception that they are not good and do not have the opportunity or structure to get good.  Improvement means little if you are still far behind, still making mistakes, and still thought of as less then.  A side effect of being watched.  For those with skill and confidence, having eyes on you improves performance.  For those without, it diminishes.

Mediating this:  talking about it/ bringing it into the open, assigning non-performance tasks/ observations, independent assignments in a different space

Complications:  only one teacher and several spaces of need, students being out of sight, must be willing to look past physical and probe into unseen mental-social-emotional

Physical Lethargy

I have been told by many, many students, that outside of PE, they “don’t do anything.”  They sit in their rooms and play video games or observe the world through the phones.  Layer on a year plus of distance learning, and they never had to leave their safe place.  A habit of lethargy and not doing is hard to break.  Momentum is not in favor of action and activity.

Specifically, there has been a definitive drop in what the majority of kids are able to do.  Quite a few have trouble climbing in and out of closed bleachers.  Their vision and spatial awareness has become remarkably poor.  There have been much higher incidences of accident and injury in PE, and the injuries are becoming much more severe (I have had a broken arm AND a broken leg in class this year).  It is less that we are building upon an accepted standard of physical capacities and more that we are having to build them from zero (or in some cases, less than zero).

Mediating this:  addressing through direct instruction/ units of understanding, starting at a dropped baseline, attentional reinforcement/feedback

Complications:  having to ‘fight’ prior expectations of PE, the basics are boring, losing the top end of performers in large group instruction, harder to teach/ develop engaging challenges for then the sports and games they are familiar with


Too many people in too small a space makes any environment dangerous.  Giving a person singular charge to take care of this place and everyone in it is an incredible ask.  This becomes incredibly apparent when the PE teacher is out and other teachers/ people are asked to sub.  The immense attentional and energy demands that are required to steer such a group in such conditions — to ask each to acknowledge and accept the risk of play — is a monumental undertaking.  This Petri dish of human behavior gives us tremendous insight on social dynamics and group culture: a relational examination that the educational system must take into higher account.

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