Children at Play. All fun. No learn?

Over the last 4 years of engaging with school leaders, parents, school coordinators, PE teachers, class teachers and school trustees on the challenge of getting kids to play in-school, there has been one consistent issue all along.

It comes disguised in various comments we hear regularly:

“The children should see different props and equipment regularly”

“The children seem to be doing the same activity multiple times”

“When children play, they should have fun”

Here is the “issue”: The belief that when children play, there should be fun & novelty.

The problem is that the people making the statements are not always viewing things from a child’s perspective or from an understanding of the physical development experience.

Let’s take each aspect:

1. FUN: As our dear advisor, Dr. George Selleck puts it: “Fun is not only about kids laughing and running around the sprinklers in the lawn”. He presented 3 essential components of FUN i.e. anybody is having “fun” when:

they are fully involved in the activity.
they are fully engaged with the group they are in.
they are stretched to their limits – and maybe slightly beyond.
As adults, we have inadvertently connected fun with laughter, lack of pressure and lack of goals. But in real life, that is not the only time we have fun. More often than not, we have fun when none of these are present.

When you work hard on an interesting problem, you are having fun. Nobody is laughing or giggling. When someone runs a marathon, they have fun. When a job is challenging, has a good set of co-workers and keeps you fully engaged, you have fun. There is pressure. There are goals to be met. And it is fun.

Building EduSports has been fun. It has been tough. But fun. Or maybe, it has been fun because it has been tough. Designing the program, convincing the school leaders & parents, delivering the program, incorporating feedback, failing, getting it right, failing some more – and then some moments of magic. That whole ride is fun.

If all it took to sign-up schools for the EduSports program was to put an ad in the papers, it might not have been fun!

In the Play context, children will have fun when they learn something new with the group they are in & when they are stretched to their limits.

How do children learn something new?: Through observation, action, imitation and repetition.

Most schools understand this learning process in the academic context. However, in the physical activity/sports context, many forget to apply the same principles.

During my childhood Badminton training days, our coach used to insist that we watch other players play. Good advice – though we were too restless to follow it for more than a few minutes.

Learning by doing is the most important element of learning in the physical activity/sports context. And you have to keep doing to ensure that you remember what you have learnt. Just because you could kick a ball well in your childhood does not mean you can do that today – unless you have been doing it regularly ever since.

When will they get stretched to their limits? When the teacher makes them do more than they think they can. More often than they’d probably do on their own. And that’s when they start learning.

When children are watching, learning, practicing, repeating, they are having fun. It probably does not seem like fun to an adult watching the program. But the program is not for adults. It is for the kids.

2.Novelty: Novel props. Unique equipment. Change it every few months. Why? Very often (and as was admitted by one candid trustee) because the school leader/co-ordinators have got tired of seeing the same equipment! The kids are fine as long as they get to play!

The assumption that children will learn new things only when there are novel props/equipment is a questionable one. While the equipment has to be functional, safe and age-appropriate, the objective of the program is to give the children the appropriate experience.

The objective is NOT to expose them to new props.

Hey, even Sachin Tendulkar uses the same hurdles, cones and hoops that a child in primary school uses.

In the physical development context, 80% of the exercises/routines done by a professional sportsperson and a child in primary school are the same. And hence, the equipment is the same.

What changes with every level is the intensity and the complexity of activities that are done. Because the props are a means to an end. Not the end in itself.

And that, to my mind, is the crux of the issue:

The goal of an in-school sports & physical activity program is to ensure that all children learn the right skills & the right fitness at the right age. And therefore, develop a liking for sports/physical activity for life. And remain healthy & fit kids growing up to be healthy & fit adults.

Getting them to learn the right fitness & skill is the key ingredient for them to stay healthy & fit for life. Healthy & fit – physically as well as socially.

The adult on the ground has to facilitate the learning process while ensuring kids have fun. Not entertain the kids. It is a sports education program. Not a show on Disney.

If our children get used to a program that works only when there is a “character” on the ground who makes them jump around and laugh, how will they ever play on their own? They need to experience the FUN of observing a new skill, working hard, failing a few times and finally getting it right.

The right kind of fun will make a life-changing impact on our kids. The superficial fun will have an impact for those 30 minutes. And that’s it.

If we want our children to learn the right fitness & the right skills at the right age, we have to introduce a certain amount of rigour. Just having them run around with no structure, no learning outcomes, no focus on practicing a certain skill till they get it right will make a mockery of the entire effort.

We risk having a completely superficial program – with lots of laughter (fun?) and novelty but no learning – if we stay with an incorrect understanding of fun and obsessed with novelty.

It is called Physical Education for a reason. It is about the Physical. And it is an integral part of Education.

Let’s not trivialize it by diluting the rigour required for any education process to be effective.

The rigour creates the fun & the life-long impact.

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