Physical Education in Primary School

Body and mind are all part of one integrated system. However, until we see universal education that acknowledges this, we have to question the commitment to holistic education – development of the whole child.

I was once a speaker at a school event in India talking to a sizeable gathering of parents, sharing the stage with a senior policeman. I spoke first, sat down and then he got up to speak. In my short speech I had highlighted the importance of physical exercise and being active in terms of the overall development of a child. When the police officer stood up, he gleefully told the audience they should take full note of what I’d said because – “Look at Sachin Tendulkar! Your children can make a lot of money in sport!” I cringed. The full intent of what I’d been saying was lost on that audience.

So, we get a number of problems, especially in the Indian education system, when it comes to physical wellness and approaches to physical education;

a) The schools system is so wedded to the idea of education as the transfer of a body of knowledge from educators to pupils, to be memorised, reproduced and graded. There’s not much of the learnable ‘stuff’ in PE, so it’s often treated as an add-on in the day to day school programme. It’s given titles like extra curricular.

b) Most of a child’s day in school is spent being so ‘suppressed’ that PE lessons are seen as a thankful release and nobody is surprised that they’re treated as a fun break time away from the ‘real stuff’ of school.

c) Nobody wants to be a PE teacher. Children are taught for these lesson periods by people who claim to be sports coaches, rather than PE teachers. Even though classroom teachers, especially in the Primary years may believe in the ‘mother teacher’ concept (sometimes begrudgingly), rather than subject specialists, they would be truly shocked if asked to conduct PE lessons for the children in their class. They fail to see that this is completely incompatible with the idea of educating the whole child.

d) Too many school leaders also see sports, games and PE as the light relief from the real, genuine reasons for schooling. As a result, the PE lessons are often the first to get sacrificed when extra time is needed for other things. In addition, they will largely be happy if the children have some activities to engage in which are fun, they enjoy as relief and where those with the best, natural comparative innate abilities go in to teams and bring some accolades and trophies for the school to be proudly displayed in a cabinet.

e) The parents and the children also buy in to ideas of sports and games as what’s important, put those with initial innate talent on pedestals and fail to understand the connections between development of foundational skills, effort and practice and eventual potential in physical activities.

f) One result of this is that by around Class 6, those children not seen as having innate talent for a sport choose to voluntarily opt out of physical activity. This proves useful for the schools as most of them don’t actually have enough space for all these children right through to class 12 to stay physically active. However, it destroys the association between physical wellness and the good of the whole person.

I have had many times when I’ve challenged teachers that they cannot afford to perpetuate these approaches. They could develop the finest minds in their classrooms, children with the finest knowledge, the abilities to succeed in all sorts of examinations and academic pursuits. However, if that young person has their first stroke or heart attack in their 30’s, can the educators really deny the role and responsibility they have for the situation?

In way too many schools, pandering to all the misguided notions, PE lessons consist of children playing or, at best, being trained for sports like cricket and football. It might look cute to parents to watch 20 5 year olds running around a football pitch chasing a ball – so close that you could throw a blanket over them. However, it provides those children very little of what they truly need.

Even in adult sport there are many clues. One that I witnessed personally was to see Subroto Cup level football players at the high school level who couldn’t kick a long ball without falling down and then having to get up before they could start running again. I recently also heard similar issues from rugby coaches working with youngsters at the top level at club and national level in India. They needed to find a lot of extra time to work with these youngsters if they were to come up to sufficient ability. They lacked in body awareness, balance, flexibility and body suppleness and stamina – the sorts of things that form the foundational bedrock of a good Primary School PE programme.

People in India wonder why all the enthusiasm and the sheer numbers of participants don’t translate in to any kind of success in football. The country has a lowly world ranking, loses ignominiously against countries with far smaller populations to select from and has only even seen a couple of players able to make the grade to play overseas, even at modest club levels. Whilst nothing can ever be put down to a single problem, the lack of foundational skills development in primary school is a significant issue impairing the ability levels. The issues holding back ability levels in rugby are similar. There’s no question, the young people playing do so with enormous dedication and enthusiasm. They put enormous effort in to their training, especially for fitness and strength. However, the country is yet to see any kind of international breakthrough.

When you compare children’s primary school experiences with those in Britain there is one massive contrast. The vast majority of British athletes and sports men and women have come through government education systems, especially at the primary level. Most of those schools have little in the way of specialised manpower for PE and sports. Instead, they are taught by their regular teachers who see the physical development of the children as being as much a part of their responsibility as language or maths skills development.

Here’s a good 15 minute professional development training video from UK that gives good insights in to the kind of skills developed in Primary School PE classes;

An education system that tries to develop fine minds whilst neglecting the body will, in my view, always fail. The development of a healthy body is not just for the few who might go on to play a sport, but the start of fundamental life habits that can benefit every pupil throughout their lives. We have a long road ahead in our schools.

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