How inclusive physical education can instill a love for movement

When physical education is modified to be accessible and fun, all students can build the confidence, competence, and motivation to see movement as part of a healthy and joyful lifestyle.
Naomi Hartl
Naomi Hartl
Naomi Hartl is School Specialty’s physical education, health, and wellness subject matter expert. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology and a Bachelor of Education from the University of Saskatchewan and began teaching in her home province of Saskatchewan, Canada. She has taught a variety of subject areas, including physical education, health education, biology, mathematics, home economics, and career education. In 2015, she relocated to the U.S. state of Oregon to work with School Specialty, which has allowed her to pursue her dream of making a difference in the lives of teachers and students by curating solutions to create safe, equitable, and successful learning programs. She can be reached at [email protected].

As a 10th-grade student and athlete who loved playing sports, I knew I wanted to go to university to be a physical education teacher. I was excited to coach and work with athletes and introduce a variety of fun, high-energy activities that I thought students would enjoy as much as I did.

As I went through my formal training, I soon discovered that a physical education teacher isn’t there just to train and inspire athletes; teaching a quality physical education program is about inspiring every child. By the time I finished my degrees in kinesiology and education, I knew I wanted to teach in ways that would positively impact every student—and inspire a love for movement along the way.

Our bodies need movement. It’s as vital to our health as good nutrition and clean water. Today’s physical education teachers are responsible for guiding all students along their physical literacy journeys and to give them the tools to incorporate the health-affirming, mood-boosting and social benefits of movement into their lives.

This process doesn’t look the same for everyone, so a quality physical education teacher learns to work with students individually to help them develop the skills to move their bodies in the ways that feel good to them. When physical education is modified to be accessible, meaningful, and fun, every student can build the confidence, competence and motivation to see movement as part of a healthy and joyful lifestyle.

What is inclusive physical education?

Inclusion is an integral part of a quality physical education program, yet some teachers struggle to support students with disabilities as they have limited training in those disabilities. Inclusive physical education is a teaching strategy used in general physical education programs. It creates an environment for all students, regardless of their skills, abilities and disabilities, to be successful.

In inclusive programs, no one sits on the sidelines. Everyone gets a chance to participate, no matter their physical abilities, cognitive capabilities or motor skills. It promotes cooperation, acceptance and empathy, and gives students opportunities to find commonalities and develop relationships with others.

Years ago, physical education classes tended to cater to (and reward) the strongest, most competitive students. Today, a high-quality physical education program, which, like any other subject,  has standards and assessments, is focused on learning, not performing.

Students aren’t necessarily there to memorize the rules of a sport or win a game. They’re there to understand how their bodies move and why they need to move, and to find feel-good ways to get moving—however that looks for them.

Getting started with inclusive physical education

Fortunately, there aren’t many barriers to implementing inclusion in your physical education programs. Most inclusive modifications don’t cost a dime. All they require from teachers is a willingness to expand their knowledge and a commitment to differentiated instruction—both of which are hallmarks of all quality educators.

A quality program involves differentiating instruction to meet your student’s needs, interests and abilities. The goal is for all students to participate in activities where they all have opportunities to participate, learn, and be successful.

Teachers can begin adapting their programs by focusing on five elements to get everyone participating and learning: instruction, rules, or cues; actions; time and tempo; boundaries; and equipment. It’s all about offering options.

For example, an inclusive physical education classroom might set different rules for various groups of students. If you have a student who has limited accuracy and coordination you can use stationary or suspended objects, larger balls or even deflated balls to allow for more control. If students have limited strength you can lower nets or goals, attach an implement to their wrist with a strap or allow them to sit rather than stand.

Other modifications might be to remove time limits for certain activities or slow the pace down to allow for better motor control. When you have a student with a visual impairment you can use brightly colored tossables, include a tee for striking, provide a constant sound source, or even attach a bell or continuous beeper to a ball.

Different types of equipment can also help students achieve a goal or grasp a new concept. For example, using a bigger racket with a shorter handle makes it easier to hit an object, as students have more control of the implement—or working with a pool noodle in place of a jump rope can slow the motion down enough to make the movement achievable. Sometimes simply giving students a choice of equipment lets them participate in more activities and allows them to experience those “I did it!” moments of joy when they master something new.

The biggest challenges can be awareness and training. Most physical education teachers are trained in the mechanics of movement and not necessarily the ins and outs of working with students with specific disabilities. But there’s a wealth of free workshops and resources, like webinars, articles, and blog posts from trusted sources, like the National Consortium for Physical Education for Individuals with Disabilities, SHAPE America, and the International Federation of Adapted Physical Activity.

Joining local or online communities of fellow educators is also a great way for teachers to get inspired, learn new ideas, and pick up modification techniques. Following hashtags such as #Physed, #AdaptedPE and #InclusivePE is a good way to find such communities, as is joining Facebook groups focused on adapted or inclusive physical education. State and local groups are also great places to find communities to join.

How administrators can support inclusive physical education

There’s every reason to start small and simple with inclusive physical education. Any incremental shift in instruction will benefit students. But there’s no reason to keep your vision for inclusion small. Once administrators know that the opportunity for change exists—and how few barriers there are to support the goal of inclusion and physical literacy for every single student—they can become valuable allies in accessing more resources.

In larger schools and districts, physical education coordinators can be the engine of change, acting as champions for inclusive practices by ensuring their teachers have the education and materials they need to succeed. School leaders can help teachers and coordinators seek out and apply for grants for more training and specialized equipment. Remember, these items don’t have to be exclusively reserved for physical education classes—they can also be used in other classrooms, at recess and in afterschool programs.

But how do you get buy-in from administrators? One thing that may impact higher-level support for inclusive physical education is people’s attitudes toward physical education. We’re all affected by our own childhood physical education experiences, which can be radically different. So start a conversation with administrators. Present research, share knowledge, invite feedback.

But the best way to educate school leaders is to offer them the chance to see what an inclusive and quality physical education program looks like in action. Show them how some basic modifications make movement accessible to everyone. They’ll see first-hand that inclusive, differentiated instruction works in the gymnasium like in any other classroom to boost engagement, learning and self-discovery.

Today’s focus on inclusion and physical literacy is about celebrating what each student’s body is capable of and allowing them to build skills that boost their confidence and motivation. With some simple shifts, an inclusive physical education program opens the door to a lifetime habit of physical activity by working with each student on building their personal movement vocabulary.

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