A Siedentopian Analysis of Physical Education

Last blog I looked at one of the ideas that has made a substantial impact on my thinking about physical education and how I 'practice' - Humanistic Physical Education In this blog I look at another 'lens' on the idea of a New Physical Education that emerged in the mid-1960s in the analysis of physical education by Daryl Siedentop. Siedentop is possibly most well known for the development of the Sport Education model (or you might know it as the Sport Education in Physical Education Program (SEPEP) if you are in Australia). However, this analysis gives an insight as to why play 'competency' might feature so centrally in his description of the Sport Education model.

Siedentop, D. (1972). Physical education: An introductory analysis. Wm. C. Brown & Company.

Siedentop's summary of the development of PE makes the observation that from its early days when the focus of PE was on 'fitness' and physical training, PE has appeared to be centred on what it can do for people, rather than on the development of a specific body of knowledge, like the other subjects do. In this regard, Siedentop suggesed that PE has struggled to transition from a primary tie with medicine to a primary tie with education. In many respects, we still see this situation at play today with some championing PE on either what it can do to enhance other subjects (PE will help academic success), or how it can address the 'inactivity crises/obesity crises'.

Given how some in the physical literacy movement seem to have narrowly defined PE as a subject or a school program, it was interesting to read Siedentop in 1972 suggesting that such a restricted application of the concept is 'doubtful' as a 'physical education experience' can occur at a summer camp, a YMCA program, or a sport club.

The Source of Meaning in Physical Education is Best Explained by the Concept of Play
The first 9 chapters of the book give an historical background to PE and then an analysis of PE for physical fitness, PE as human movement, and PE as education through movement. Chapter 10 is where Siedentop provides his perspective of PE, and he lays out a case for the meaning of PE in play - "When a person is at play, they are by definition engaged in experience which has meaning" (p. 218).

Siedentop called for a 'renaissance' of the concept of play as it is "a fundamental mode of human behaviour...central to life itself" (p. 220). If it is accepted that the concept of play is central to PE, then it follows that physical educators need to be clear about what characterises PE from other forms of play. It is not accurate to think that PE is play because PE is an educational process. Siedentop acknowledges this, and refers to John Dewey to suggest that PE, like any educational endeavour, must be about "growth of further experiences". Siedentop makes the case that PE is made valuable by 'play' and made necessary if it provides 'growth' of motor ability. This also means that PE is not restricted to a school subject as these criteria can apply to a summer camp, a YMCA, or a sport club program.

Siedentop suggested that "the meaning obtainable from play experiences is directly proportional to the degree that the player is at play and in the play environment" (p. 242). What he meant here, was that meaning occurs when one is fully immersed in the play, 'mind and body'. His description here was like that of 'peak' or 'flow' moments, and it is in these moments that movement has meaning. Siedentop appeared to dismiss what he called the 'utilitarian approach' that attempts to reach aims and objectives associated with education through movement as he believed the experience of activities in and of themselves should be sufficient to justify PE. Therefore, Siedentop suggested physical educators should be satisfied with education in movement, and the resultant aim "to increase tendencies and abilities to play" (p. 245) and to not be looking for PE to be something else or something more than this.

Sidentop makes clear in this book that it his his belief that the value of PE and what makes PE educationally valuable is the initiation of young people in PE into the worlds of competitive and expressive 'motor' play, and that our role is developing 'ability' to play as this will enhance one's tendency to play. "We teach because we hope to influence not only the present abilities of students but also their future behaviour and predispositions to continue to engage in our subject matter" (p. 247).

Siedentop was not one of the 'voices' of physical education that was included in my physical education teacher education at 'teachers college' in the mid-1980's. However, when I 'look back' on that program it seems very 'Siedentopian' in that it 'feels' like it had a strong emphasis on education in play, and especially the institutionalised form of play we call 'competitive sport'. We were being focused on the intent of improving students abilities to play, and I recall the message that while we 'work' in schools, what comes with the tag of 'physical educator' is often the expectation to coach school and community sport and it will be in these contexts that we will often have the opportunity "to increase tendencies and abilities to play".

My "take away" from the Siedentop analysis of PE 45 years ago is that if we are concerned with what students 'do' after they finish compulsory PE, then what we do in PE must encourage the tendency toward movement. With evidence globally of declining levels of physical activity and of declining levels of movement ability, this work of Siedentop reminds us also of the educative importance of education in movement because movement competency encourages 'meaning' in the form of a sense of movement confidence that encourages one to move - to be 'active'.

In adopting the tag "Play with Purpose" in the development of my PE and sport coaching resources I hoped those who try the ideas I present will find that the conversation in their PE classes and sport coaching sessions turn from 'When are we going to play a game?' to 'What game are we going to play today?'. Like Siedentop, I position 'play' as of central importance to PE and sport, and what it means to be 'physically educated'.


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