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Games for PE - fishtanks in sandboxes.

Updated: Jun 1, 2022

I spoke in my previous post about the role games play in my teaching and coaching, the value of games and how games are so captivating. Viewing games through a PE lens provides an exceptional opportunity to positively impact many students across physcial, mental and emotional domains, which is exactly what the aim of PE is in many countries.

Hurling - one of the fastest invasion sports in the world, which also contains striking and fielding skills.

Types of Games

As a PE teacher, I am limited by my own creativity regarding the games that I can utilise to elicit physcial, mental and emotional growth of students. Learning in one game often transfers in some capacity to any other game, although some learning have a stronger connection than others. The strength of the connection is generally due to the type of game learning is transferred from and to. Games for PE can be divided into invasion games (personally my favourite, probably due to my experiences of only playing invasion sports), striking and fielding games, and net and wall games. It is important to note that each classification can contain a unique blend of skills. For example, Hurling (picture above) is classified as an invasion game, but it contains striking and fielding components. Tennis is classified as a net and wall game, but it contains striking components as well as multi-directional movement skills (or agility).

Invasion games

As the name suggests, these types of games are about invading the opposition territory. There are two key playing principles - attacking (creating space) and defending (denying space). To put it in the context of American Football and a wide receiver - the wide receiver is trying to create space from his direct opponent, while the defender is trying to remove the space to get an interception. In the case of football (example below), a striker trying to dribble past a defender is trying to create space to shoot or pass (this generally happens via a change of speed or direction), while her opponent (the defender) is looking to remove the space to tackle or dispossess the striker.

An interesting contrast is combat sports. Combat sports can be classed as invasion sports, due to the aim of invading your opponents space the strike and grapple (depending on the specific rules - Boxing (see below) vs MMA). Attacking your opponent in combat sports means to close the space to get within striking or shooting distance (shoot for a takedown), while defending can mean to block shots or prevent takedowns, but it can also mean moving out of your opponents range. A boxer with a greater reach than their opponent will have an advantage.

Striking and fielding games

This type of game involves 2 teams, one team is striking and the other is fielding. The striking team aims to accumulate runs until the fielding team manage to dismiss all players of the striking team. Cricket (example below) is an example of this kind of game, where the striking team tries to accumulate runs between the 2 stumps, and the fielding is bowling and attempting to dismiss the striking team 1 by 1 either by hitting the stumps with the ball, catching on the full a ball the has been struck or by retrieving a ball and throwing it against the stumps before the striker has returned home. All players on the striking team accumulate runs until all players are dismissed then both teams swap.

Net and wall games

Net and wall games involve striking a ball, with the hand (handball) or with an implement (tennis) away from opponents until they cannot return the ball. Handball or squash are examples of wall games, and tennis and badminton are examples of net games. A key focus of net and wall games are the execution of techincal skills. In invasion sports, more physically dominant players can potentially mask their technical deficiencies, while striking and fielding athletes may also compensate with exceptional movement skills. While movement skills are obviously important in net and wall games, success is largely dependent of technical skills and accuracy with strikes.

Games for Physical Literacy - the importance of play.

As discussed here, Physical literacy can be defined as "the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and engage in physical activity for life" (International Physical Literacy Association, 2017). Physical literacy is a complex phenomenon, and as Donella Meadows writes about in her book, Thinking in Systems, complex systems have many interacting components (future blog post). And because it is complex, it is difficult (near impossible) to reduce it to a single number or equation, making the task of operationalising physical literacy quite the challenge (another future blog post).

According to the Oxford dictionary, play can be defined as a verb or a noun. The verb, "to play", means to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose, or to take part in a sport. From a PE perspective, the first definition is more pertinent, as PE is about creating physically literate individuals, who will find joy in physical activity. Play as a noun is described as activity engaged in for enjoyment and recreation, especially by children. As a PE teacher, I believe I have a duty to provide opportunities for students to play.

Play has numerous benefits as a vehicle to develop physical literacy. Through play, children develop physical, mental and emotional capacities. Children develop a range of movement qualities, they learn to read information from their environment and those within in it (information-movement coupling, discussed here). Play goes hand-in-hand with games. Looking at the definition of the verb "to play" above, it could easily be rearranged to say "to engage in games". Play and games are synonomous. For children, playing outside with other children in public spaces (sports grounds or playgrounds) can further enhance the physical and mental development of children and youth.

My own brief experience

One of the key challenges of games is that not everyone will have the necessary skills to take part and won't want to play. This is something I have experienced in my first placement. I had been running a block of invasion games, incorporating different size and shape balls, with varying tasks. One day, because of the poor weather, we went into the fitness suite to complete a form of circuit training, utilising cardio equipment (treadmills, bikes, cross-trainers) and supplementing this with some muscular endurance work (squat to press with a medicine ball for example). The students who tried hard when playing games, also tried hard in the fitness suite. But the students who really struggled in games (there were 3 in particular, for the purpose of this anecdote I will refer to them as low engaging students (LES)), also tried exceptionally hard in the fitness suite. In the fitness suite, the LES didn't need to use basic fundamental movement skills (like throwing, catching and kicking) and they weren't competing against others who had more developed skills than them. Instead, 2 things happened: 1) the LES engaged in the fitness suite because it was more accessible to them, and 2) the LES did not feel judged or in competition with anyone as they were simply just doing their own thing, running their own race.

My own learnings from this situation - fishtanks and sandboxes:

  • create games that are optimally challenging: I have posted numerous time around the optimal challenge point, and unless a challenge is within the zone of optimal challenge for an individual, they won't fully engage. For the LES above, invasion games were outside of their optimal challenge zone, but circuit training was within their optimal challenge zone, and engagement was enhanced. A key focus when making games more accessible for the LES (and many students like them) is task simplification not task decomposition, which I spoke about previously regaring Agility. Fishtanking really captures the idea of task simplification. Fishtanking for skill development essentially preserves all the fundamental parts of an ecosystem and requires the athlete to practice their interaction with the environment. For example, a fishtank still contains water, rocks, and seaweed, and the fishtank is representative of the ocean. Training FMS skills in my view means training them through simplified games. An example could be to reduce the number of opposition players. 16 students, rather than having 8v8, having 4 games of 3v1 might suit the LES better. This way we are preserving the fundamental parts of an invasion game ecosystem - teammates, opposition, rules etc.

  • creating a positive relationship with challenge and failure. Embracing failure is an important part of life, and this extends way outside PE. But referring back to the principles of video game design, allowing students a safe space to fail, both physically and emotionally is an important part of creating games for skill development in PE.

How valuable then it PE in schools? I am biased, as I'm sure many who read this post will be too, but PE is critical to the holistic development of a child, and should be of high importance in schools. Play is considered to be the right of every child by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights, and PE teachers can provide opportunities for children to do just this, through appropriate and well planned games.

Over the coming weeks and months and years I would love to add some more practical insights into the use of games to develop physical literacy. For now, 2 outstanding resources that have helped me formulate my thoughts around this topic:

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