Learning to play with Purpose

Learning to play with Purpose

This Blog was originally posted on the Australian Council for Health and Physical Education Blog

In my role I get to see a lot of physical education and sport teaching, at both primary and secondary school level and in community coaching settings. While many teachers and coaches have adopted game-centred play with purpose to deliberately develop general game skills and sport specific movement skills, I mainly see what it is often called a “traditional” physical education (PE) method. That is, students/players in lines waiting for turns to move off markers in defined movement patterns using prescriptive stylised (what some call textbook) techniques under almost exclusively directive coaching/instruction. The transfer from practice to game play and skill learning is at best ad-hoc, at worst presumptive on behalf of the teacher/coach. The emerging literature from a dynamic systems perspective of games as complex adaptive systems emphasises the need to create practice situations that are representative of the performance context at all levels of game development, described in the literature as information-movement coupling, in order to facilitate transfer of learning from practice to play.
Involving students in game play is not the end of the story. The play must be purposeful. Students don’t learn by osmosis, simply being outside and involved in play. Practice which is structured and deliberately designed to be progressively and coherently complex stimulates learning. Physical activity (PA) is not PE, and while you can’t have PE or skill learning in coaching sessions without PA, you can have students engaged in PA and no PE occurs. That is because learning implies improvement and adaptation on behalf of the individual resulting in an improved state of performance. Teachers and coaches therefore have a responsibility to be clear about the target concepts and capabilities that game-play is designed to develop – to structure play with purpose. A drill is just a drill – how often in a game of basketball or football do you see players execute a 3-player-weave? When do players run off markers over a set distance to another marker in a game?
The elements that create the recipe for a “rich” environment where education is the determination of the PE teacher/sport coach that leads to play with purpose are:
Game-centred, but not game only: Play is the core element of training/lessons, but directive teaching is not excluded. The pedagogical skill is in knowing when and with which students/athletes to use directive teaching methods.
Small-sided game play: Less players means more game engagement for each player and therefore more opportunity to consolidate movement understanding and capability.
Designer games*: Teachers/coaches can manipulate game constraints (rules and conditions) to focus learning on particular game outcomes.
Teach for transfer: Transfer from practice to play is facilitated when the practice task is representative of the game context at all levels of game development.
Teach for transfer: Games from the same game category (Invasion, Target, Net/Court, Striking/Fielding) ask similar “questions” of players from the configurations of play. The tactics and specific strategies developed in response to game “questions” or “problems” learnt in one game/sport can be applied in another game/sport in the same category, so the PE teacher should deliberately scaffold for this transfer to occur.
Guided discovery: Learning is scaffolded by the deliberate use of questioning to lead players to discover target concepts. When a player discovers a solution they are more likely to retain the new knowledge and understanding than if being told. Being able to shape the play and focus the play on the purpose for play through well designed questioning is an important, but perhaps the most difficult, pedagogical skill.
Focus play: Practice tasks should be purposefully focused on game concepts or tactics.
Finally, the objective of learning in this game-centred environment is Game Sense. While technique is the visible display of movement, in a Game Sense informed learning environment filled with play with purpose, Skill is understood as Technique + Game Context (den Duyn, 1997). Therefore, knowing what to do, knowing how to do it, and being able to do it are not separate but rather coupled components.

den Duyn, N. (1997). Game sense: Developing thinking players. Belconnen, ACT: Australian Sports Commission.

* Rick Charlesworth used the term Designer Games to describe practice games that package technical, tactical and fitness training into a modified game or situational game practice. Sport Coach, 17(4), 30-33.

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