Understanding, Appreciation, Learning and Fun – How do they connect in Physical Education?

Recently there has been a lot of talk about the Joy of Learning where I come from. This is a theme that has been in focus for the past year as a result of the education ministry’s initiative to encourage a resurgence in innovative learning environments by looking at current practises and conditions. This seemingly obvious statement about invoking a very desirable emotional state of learning is anything but simple. To the casual onlooker, providing fun, excitement, etc. in the classroom can and should be the crux of any effective teaching and learning experience, especially Physical Education (PE). For PE, enjoyable play is synonymous to fun play. This is true but the blueprint surrounding the entire process of effective, exciting lessons (the Fun Chain) goes much deeper than just providing fun. Fun by itself does not create learning. It is a by-product. I much prefer the statement Learning for Joy if indeed such a succinct reminder is needed for schools.

Fun Chain Pic

For PE lessons, the expectation of the fun aspect of play is popularly intertwined with the outcome of PE programmes. In Games Centred Approaches (GCAs) like Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU), one of the contributing influence for its incarnation is the desire to get students to enjoy their PE lessons through play which has been equated, to some extent, to students wanting to be part of PE and not being force to go through meaningless (to them) practises and drills. This particular objective has evolved in some quarters, unfortunately, as ‘If they are not having fun in play, it is not a good PE lesson’. The focus on Fun, Joy, etc can take a life of its own, leaving many teachers disappointed and confused when students in lessons chant the dreaded “Teacher, PE is not fun!”, a self-esteem killer! This whole conundrum was further deepened for me when recently I heard anecdotal comments of students, through parents, who enjoyed play when younger but started to hate PE lessons.

So, where does fun come in for contemporary pedagogical processes for PE teaching? We PE teachers are no Grinches trying to steal the spirit of fun from PE classes but professionals who have a job to do. We want to do our job well which means the by-product of the very subjective Fun is at times necessary. However, this by-product cannot overwhelm the teaching-learning thinking flow. Fun must be connected to play and play must be connected to the planned learning process.

The evolution of fun in play for me starts with our core beliefs for teaching. We need to believe that students want to learn and are capable of wanting to make independent, innovative decisions on their own in various PE settings (for this article, I will focus on Games learning). This road to a student’s PE nirvana of being able to make decisions is based on the premise they understand what they are doing. This understanding represents a situation where they are actually also able to be responsible for their own learning as they move on independently to similar-potential learning environments. My ideas on RtG (Reinventing the Game) and its assumptions derived from GCA approaches (assumptions of what kind of learning students are capable of) represents the basic beliefs that are needed as we create that fun leaning experience in play related activities. My RtG and playability assumptions (assumptions of what makes games inherently attractive and therefore playable) allows me the guidance for that instructional design to create better learning by understanding experiences.

(I seem to be using assumptions a lot. Assumption are incredible back bone to planning. It is usually underrated and forgotten after being articulated at the inception of ideas and theories. Continued referenced to sound assumptions allows sticking to original intention without being derailed by unexpected outcomes.)

So, does understanding automatically guarantees fun? Again, there is a deeper existence of understanding that is needed before fun is assumed to be existing. I say ‘assumed’ because it will not be possible or viable, for instructional design, to gauge fun by just observing physical signs of the emotional representation of fun, i.e. laughter, smiles, etc. Understanding must support and lead to appreciation. Appreciation is the final nail to the proverbial fun box! Appreciation is the final ingredient which to me represents the final element that needs to exist for fun to happen. We can assume fun play, as per above description, exist if it meets the understanding and appreciation conditions mentioned.

So is that the end of the story? Well, the process to that understanding and appreciation is also a formidable road. Formidable but achievable to the determined teacher. The moment we associate play with fun, we have to consider game centeredness and student centricity. The play and its iterations that we introduce is targeted and based on the objectives of lessons, not random play. They are game-like (not just mini versions of the actual game but depending on what aspect of game is being taught – see RtG action behaviour suggestions for activity to be authentic to objectives). Lesson activities need to be designed to be authentic to the objectives of the lesson. One good assumption we can rely on here is that playability conditions are needed to make activities game-like and fun, which are necessary to the authentic condition necessary for GCA approaches. The converse is also fundamental to GCA conditions, i.e. fun can be a realistic expectation if authentic game conditions are met in lesson deign, meeting playability expectations, through understanding and appreciation.

While from the game aspect (game centred) we can create fantastic lessons meeting the needs of our lesson objectives, there needs to be an awareness of where students’ starting points are (student centred). We can take the Fun Chain all the way to appreciation and still be devoid of the fun. The job of the teacher is to ensure a customised experienced that ensures appreciation is pitched at a level that is suitable for students’ starting point. We can only confidently hope that we get it right and fun appears in all our lessons. The alternative is to reflect and balance the need to have a hundred percent unadulterated fun with the basic needs of a robust learning and teaching environment.

Fun play through movement is a much desirable characteristic to convince us of the immediate tangible benefit of a PE curriculum. Taken on its own, long term PE development might suffer. Taken as part of curriculum and pedagogy processes, it serves as a very good support for good practices in teaching. What I did above is attempting to unpack the teaching and learning process for fun and it may seem unnecessarily convoluted. My attempts are never to over-engineer a simple process but give credit to the abilities of teachers to delve into thinking processes and to create a multitude of learning experiences for the limited time that students spent in school. We need to present the learning experience for students as a fluid continuous process, as much as I seemingly represent it in discrete, bumpy steps from the planning perspective. The key here is life-long adherence and not immediate gratification through easy-to-access outcomes.

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