Building an 'Active Culture' in the classroom.
Why it is important:
Over recent years, it has become increasingly apparent that active lifestyles have certainly declined in wider society, and naturally, this is something which has been carried over to children. In my experience (others might reasonably disagree), I have found the recent pandemic and consequent lockdowns have certainly negatively impacted this even further, and whilst I’m definitely not one to advocate schools assuming more responsibilities of the parent, I would say that it is more important than ever for both schools and families should be making every effort to promote active lifestyles in our children.
Physical Education vs. Physical Activity:
First of all, I think it’s important to ensure we clearly differentiate between physical education and physical activity. Whilst physical activity is a vital component of P.E., it’s not all P.E. is - in similar way that reading is a key element of English, but we wouldn’t just spend our English lessons just reading. It is important we invest our physical education time in teaching children.
For me, the easiest way to improving the “activeness” of a class or school is high-quality physical education. Providing children with the skills and knowledge to competently take part in a wide range of sports and activities is the essential bedrock of encouraging physical activity in children. This being said, in this blog, I’m not going to go into the deep depths of planning and implementing an effective P.E. curriculum but will discuss ideas and suggestions beyond the curriculum in which I have personally found can help build an active culture in the classroom.
Competitiveness vs. Inclusion:
One thing I often see in discussions around the topic of sport and physical activity is the apparent mutual exclusivity of competitiveness and inclusion – most often, it is either the removal of competitive elements to ensure fairness or an over-the-top focus on competition with little regard for the implications. Personally, I think the careful management of competitiveness is vital in developing an active culture; it’s the driving force behind the intrinsic motivation required to engage fully in an activity. It is also vital that we provide opportunities, and model, to children how best to manage and focus this competitiveness. For some, this is controlling their competitiveness in a positive and constructive manner; for others, it might be trying to encourage a more competitive approach. Any physical activity – whether it be at break/lunch, during an activity within a P.E. lesson or an additional activity – can be opportunity to help build on this.
An aspect of this I have found often lacking is actual modelling of appropriate competitiveness (and other sporting values) by adults. It’s a given that, as teachers, we will model writing in English, strategies in maths, techniques in art, but so often, children don’t have modelling for how to take part effectively in physical activity. The simplest, and most enjoyable, way I have best found to do this is actively taking part in some activities. As well as allowing us to model effective ways to manage our own competitiveness (and encourage the self-management of others), we can also quickly provide feedback to children in the direct moment very easily.
Whilst competitiveness is often seen as between individuals/teams, for me, the most important aspect to push with children is that of continual striving to be best we can be – not for glory or accolades, but the self-satisfaction of bettering oneself. A focus on self-improvement is often enough to remove most negative aspects of “over-competitiveness”. This idea of self-improvement can also easily be linked to other sporting values – such as teamwork and honesty.
Before going too much of a tangent away from the main meaning of this blog, in essence, what I’m trying to say is that encouraging competitiveness in the right way can go a long way to helping increase the engagement in physical activity – without excluding any individuals.
Physical activities beyond the curriculum:
I’ve already discussed my thoughts on how a high-quality P.E. curriculum and well-managed competitiveness are key to building an active culture. Now, I will go through my ideas on what we can do beyond the curriculum to help with this. Whilst the title of this blog is “building an active culture in the classroom”, I do not believe this can done be effectively at a classroom level, and, as with any culture you are trying to build, it requires a whole-school approach.
Perhaps the biggest concern with increasing physical activity beyond the curriculum is how we are going to fit it into an already crammed timetable. My advice is that whatever you do, make sure it’s as efficient and effective as possible. I’ve seen some really grand initiatives (some that I’d less politely describe as gimmicks) to help improve this that are simply not sustainable due to the effort and time it takes up. It’s vital that whatever is done is integrated into a routine, minimising the time taken to do it and maximising the impact that it has. Obviously, saying all this, introducing a new activity to your classroom isn’t going to be instantly successful; at first, it will take time to tweak and improve.
Now, we are stuck with the dilemma of balancing keeping additional activities simple – as not to overly impact on curriculum time – and keeping them interesting enough to sustain focussed efforts from children when taking part. The two most successful ways I have found most effective are introducing short periods of running or short follow-me type dances - there are obviously lots of other alternatives. Depending on the age of the children, the activities will need adjusting as according. I’m sure most of you will be familiar with both of these forms of physical activity, and I’m sure many will already have opinions of each. I’ll go through some small things that I have that I have personally found has improved both.
These are effectively where the children are required to copy the actions/dance moves. Most typically this would be a video – although some of you might be confident enough in your own dance ability to be the model to copy – massive respect if you do! Some ideas I have seen used successfully are “BBC Supermovers” and “5-a-day fitness”; however, my personal favourite, particularly for older children, are “Just Dance” videos - a range of which can easily be found on YouTube. I would encourage you to first check a dance before using it as you may deem some lyrics and dance moves as inappropriate. The benefits of this as a physical activity is that, if effective routines are in place, it will literally only take the time of the video (and adverts) to do – which is usually less than five minutes. Their short and convenient nature mean they can be interjected at almost any point in the day as often as you wish.
As mentioned, routines and expectations are key with this. I have found the most important is the expectation that children are seated and return back to whatever it was they were doing or ready to listen to the next thing. I have found a few potential pitfalls which I feel do need managing. Depending on your space, and vigour of dancing, the classroom environment can become a hazard when doing this and should be monitored accordingly. The other is the reluctant dancers. I have had a few of these over the years – and all have eventually (some took a few weeks) would take part. The easiest way I have found to do this comes back to modelling the correct behaviour yourself – in other words, take part in the dance. Disclaimer: this doesn’t work very well if you’re actually quite good at dancing…
Running is probably the most popular go-to option for most: it’s simple, easy to implement, doesn’t take up much time when implement with routines and effective at improving overall fitness. This being said, it’s very easy to get wrong. The most common I see is the running activity taking place, but a large number of children not actually challenging themselves when doing it. This comes back to the importance of competitiveness – and, as I mentioned, the unrelenting pushing of self-improvement. If you can develop a culture of self-improving competitiveness, then this is very unlikely to become an issue. Another reason I see causing this is a lack expectation on our part to take part fully in physical activity (i.e. that it’s something we can simply opt out of). One thing I always try to make clear to my class is that P.E. or physical activity is like any other aspect of school: I expect them to try. I think it is vitally important to actively encourage all children to push themselves in all areas of school – even the parts they have the mindset that they shouldn’t enjoy and therefore not try as hard. This does mean when a child stops pushing themselves when running, I will definitely pick them up for it. This isn’t done in an intimidating way, and I will always explain to the children why I’m doing so.
So, what can we do to make our running activities effective? One simple way is to introduce a goal element. This is the main premise of “daily mile” type activities. By children knowing they have a set distance to run and that it will take place every day, they have a target to aspire to. Personally, I’m not a fan of set distances – as children will complete them all in difference times and you end up with children not actually doing much. Also, for some children, a mile is too much (at the moment – they might get there eventually) and for other children a mile isn’t particularly challenging at all. I have seen successful implementation of set-time running (i.e. a complete a certain number of laps or distance for a set period of time) – and it is particular useful for encouraging self-improvement. One thing we do at our school which has seemed to have a positive impact (although could do with some further tweaks) is setting class termly challenges (i.e. where you try and run a collective distance as a class). This works on a number of levels: there’s a clear goal, it enables competitiveness and inclusivity (all children can challenge themselves to their own limits) and it also help encourages a sense of team competitiveness and togetherness to complete a challenge. It has its own pitfalls – not least managing the recording of it – but after a while, you will find that there are many ways you can continually improve its effectiveness and efficiency.
As previously mentioned, I’m a big believer in modelling physical activity, and never more than with attitudes and approaches towards running. I remember having a colleague complain to me about most of their class not engaging in physical activity whenever they did it, and she asked if I could come a watch and see if I could help improve it. Before they’d even left the classroom to go outside, I’d already heard four negative comments from the adults in the class about how they’re not supposed to like physical activity, but it was important. They were well-meaning comments – but, by allowing their own negative feelings about physical activity to be so apparent, not one of them had noticed the impact this had had on the children in the class. Whilst most incidences of negative attitudes won’t be quite as obvious, children can pick up on even the subtlest of cues that the adults do not enjoy it, and once they have it modelled to them that they shouldn’t enjoy it, it can have a dramatic impact. At this point, I would like to point out that I’m not saying you all have to enjoy physical activity, but that making the children think you do can go a long way to helping encourage more activity from them. I would argue that it’s a personal mindset which could be changed – but I’ll save that for another day. Just as we would with building, for example, a reading culture, it is vital that children see physical activity as something in which the role-models – namely adults - value. The easiest way to model a positive attitude towards any physical activity, but especially running, is to actively join in. This might be daunting for some – especially if you are not particularly good at running - but you’d amazed at the impact first-hand modelling of ‘giving things a go’ has on your children – particularly the less confident. We often expect children to put themselves out there and not fear making mistakes or being seen as not being good at things, but often we fail to do these things ourselves.
The final suggestion that I’m going to discuss is ways in which we can make running slightly more interesting. Let’s face it, even for the most avid runners in your class, running around a circular track fifty times every day is going to get slightly boring. So, how can we mix it up? Depending on your school site, you may be able to easily vary the routes in which they take. This simple change can sometimes re-energise a running activity – especially when the odd obstacle is thrown in. A personal favourite of mine is a caterpillar-chain of running – where the whole class have to line up and follow the leader (best if it’s you, but it can be useful to change it at times). This instantly adds an element of surprise, and it is very easy to implement once in a routine, taking up very little time. It does have it downfalls in that it doesn’t necessarily allow all runners to challenge themselves optimally – but as a quick and easy burst of activity, I have found it to be very useful. More recently, I have had a lot of success with interval-type running (as opposed to continuous). Having children back from the latest lockdown, I found that a lot were really lacking the self-discipline and desire to challenge over a sustained period far more than I have ever seen before. I was having some children run about ten metres and then walk (until reminded to run again). My first thought was to pick them up on their apparent laziness, but then I considered that it was actually more likely to be habitual: a lack of practice over lockdown. So, to combat this, I thought I’d get them to run a shorter distance, but really push themselves; then, they were to have a short period of rest before starting again. The knowledge of the impending rest and set distance to run meant that very quickly all children were running the distance at a self-challenging pace. The easiest way I have found so far to implement this is for children to pair up (best if they are similar fitness and speed of runner), and for one to run a set distance whilst the other rests; once their partner returns, the other person then runs their distance and returns.
Here’s a quick summary, as this has been slightly longer than I first intended. This was just a collection of some of my thoughts and ideas on helping build an active culture. Personally, I think the key aspects are the effective management of competitiveness, a whole-school approach, ensuring a clear differentiation between P.E. and physical activity, a high-quality P.E. curriculum and the modelling of positive attitudes to, and involvement in, physical activity.