Physical Education (PE) is a crucial component of a well-rounded education, focusing on the development of physical fitness, teamwork, and fair play. However, it’s equally essential that PE classes embody the principles of inclusion to ensure that every student, regardless of their physical abilities, feels welcome and valued.
My high school education (in England) was very two dimensional. In PE, there were lots of drills, where I would stand opposite my partner and pass the ball back and forth for what seemed like an eternity. Suddenly, we would be split into two large teams and a game commenced. Thinking back, I feel it wasn’t to give us a chance to put these passes into action, but to stop all the teenagers from asking, “When are we having a game?!”. There was very little critical thinking involved and little opportunity for skill application from one activity to another. It was almost expected that students would just ‘figure it out’. As a ‘sporty’ guy, I managed, but many of my friends didn’t and they were turned off sports and activities for life.
Early in my career as an educator, I decided to try and create three dimensional lessons and holistic learning opportunities. The basic principle I try to follow is that learning should be student-centred. If students are involved and are encouraged to think, give their opinion, work together, and communicate, hopefully they are invested and buying into the activity. After all, these are the skills that we hope all students leave high school with.
An underlying principle of the British Columbia PE curriculum is that students must be active in creating, assessing, and applying what they learn to their daily lives. Simply giving students opportunities to be physically active and providing information about health and safety is not enough to have a long-lasting effect on behaviour.
There are many ways students can contribute to a PE lesson and for many years I have been a strong proponent of the Sport Education (SE) teaching model, designed by American professor Daryl Siedentop in 1984. The three major goals of SE serve as a guide to ensure students become competent, literate, and enthusiastic participants:
- A competent sports person has sufficient skills to participate in game situations and can apply their skill to various situations.
- A literate person understands the wider aspects of sports and activities (value of the rules, etc. and can distinguish the difference between good and bad sporting behaviour).
- An enthusiastic person is one that not only plays with passion, but enhances the overall sports culture through active involvement with teammates and finds ways to ensure everyone is involved in all activities.
This holistic approach deviates from the mindset that PE is all about improving your skill level. It focuses onopportunities to allow students to work together and understand the importance of doing so, not just in PE classes, but in the broader community.
Over the years, I have taught many students with varying physical abilities and have tried many ways to adapt or modify my classes, with varying degrees of success. It is often one of the hardest aspects of teaching PE, to try and create an environment that is ‘totally’ inclusive for all.
The usual ways are to offer different equipment (shorter and bigger badminton rackets for example), or adapt rules of games (players may walk with the ball in a basketball game, whereas the rest of the class may not). This ‘differentiation of equipment’ or ‘differentiation of task’ are two of the more common ways to adapt PE lessons . Another way is ‘differentiation of instruction’, i.e. spend some one-on-one time with a student to create modified activities to allow them to have success.
However, I have found that these approaches simply allowed the student with modified needs, the opportunity to achieve some success, yet there was no ‘adapted learning’ for the rest of the class. Often, many students in a large class of 30 would have no idea that rules had been ‘adapted’ for a particular student, or that they had used different equipment, or that I was working behind them as they ran around the court. This meant that their understanding and comprehension of how to embed inclusion into what we were doing was lost. How could I provide practical opportunities for students to experience inclusion?
I started to provide opportunity and exposure to different activities. One example with a Grade 10 class was to play sitting volleyball. The rules are basically the same as volleyball, but all participants are sitting and the net is lower. I introduced the game by showing action from the Paralympic Games and students could see the level of play. We then got to practice volleyball skills sitting down and adapt them to the game situation. The next time the class met, they were given an option to play ‘regular’ volleyball or sitting volleyball and they chose to play sitting again. I took the opportunity, in conjunction with the SE model, to highlight the importance of maximum participation. During the semester, students (as part of a team) get to plan and teach the rest of the class an activity of their choice and this created a perfect ‘teaching moment’ whereby I could emphasize the need for maximum opportunity and participation and some ways we could do it.
A second activity that I have been a strong proponent of is wheelchair basketball. Many years ago, I contacted BC Wheelchair Basketball Association (BCWBS) to learn about renting chairs and providing students the chance to learn a new game. The reason was purely for exposure. I did not have a student in the class that used a chair. I believed that demonstrating the game would be a chance for students to learn that all people, including those with disabilities who may require mobility devices, , can play sports and be active. During the week, instructors came into the school to teach the basic chair manipulation and then for the rest of the week, over 600 students got to experience playing basketball in a chair. (With a couple of classes I even did some wheelchair rugby). Since then, (over a decade ago) I have rented chairs annually and exposed thousands of students to wheelchair sports.
The final sport I have been a huge fan of is para hockey, also known as sledge hockey. For several years now, I have worked with SportAbility BC to take senior level students to a local ice arena where they get instruction from a certified coach, they play games on the ice and then play a full game of para hockey. This has always been a huge hit with the students as it is so new for most of them. For the students who can’t skate, it demonstrates the fact that anyone can have access to an activity, given the right set of equipment, time and opportunity.
Inclusion is a fundamental principle that should be the cornerstone of all aspects of education. The provision of adapted sports activities has not only given students an opportunity to try something new but has provided a transformative way to foster inclusion within high school PE classes.
I will continue to advocate for all PE students to ‘keep an open mind’ and try new activities, encouraging the development of positive behaviours. Sports can be a powerful tool to break down barriers, build confidence, and promote a sense of belonging.
Inclusive PE classes contribute to the creation of a supportive and compassionate school culture where every student can thrive, fostering a foundation for a healthier and more inclusive society.