Volume 2: Learners and Learning in Physical Education 

In the previous blog we explored one the first empirical studies of Sport Education. It reported on the positive benefits to students’ learning that it can accrue from its use. Certainly, this paper advocated for Sport Education, and the discussions of the blog indicated that a number of people were using the approach (what my research group would call a ‘pedagogical model’). 

In this week’s blog we explore Kirk’s discussions around the need to invest in the physical education experiences for young people aged 7-11. Without specialists in primary schools and with a particular focus on training children in adult forms of activities, he argues that young people are discriminated against and they are ‘robbed’ of the forms of development that could encourage lifelong participation in physical activity.


Paper 34: 

Kirk, D. (2005/2012). Physical education, youth sport and lifelong participation: The importance of early learning experience. In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education: Volume II. (pp. 176-189) London: Routledge.


My ‘take home’ message – the implications of the research on practice 

Consider the development of a child from birth to adulthood. Consider how she emerges helpless and then develops the different traits, skills and understandings that she will need to be a infant, a toddler, a child, a teenager and so on. You can’t rush any of these stages and children develop at different speeds and are nurtured in different environments. You can’t rush a child to say her first words or take her first steps, you can buy as many footballs or pianos as you like but you can’t give a child the motors skills to play. We wouldn’t ask a child to be an adult before she were ready and nor would we leave her to develop on her own. Indeed, we would hope to provide her with everything that she needs and at the time that she needed it.

Likewise we wouldn’t seek to inhibit a child’s development. We wouldn’t force her to crawl when she has already learnt to walk and nor would we keep her in silence when able to talk. How much would a child learn about communication if we refused to nurture her, to talk to her or sing to her? What would she learn if she didn’t hear conversation, or if the only the conversation she heard was that of other children? Would she reason, and argue, and embellish and tell stories of her own? No, she would be limited by the environment and her prior experiences and unable to function. We wouldn’t ask her to do mathematical equations that are greatly beyond her capabilities or invite her to form a government.

Yet in PE and physical activity (PA) we often avoid the developmental steps that children need to be successful. We encourage the adult form of the game when children should still be sampling the game (see my explanation below) and engaging in ‘deliberate play’ where rules and outcomes are modified. In other words, our child should be engaged in playing and not training and she should be supported by those with the expertise to help her develop. 

To me this is the central message of Kirk’s paper. We need to invest in PE but at the appropriate level. Children between the ages of 7-11 should be experiencing sampling games or activities under the care of qualified pedagogues. Without this foundation then the other stages of development and the move towards lifelong participation – either at leisure or as part of amateur or elite performance – is stifled.


The Paper

The main crux of Kirk’s argument is that we need to support the teaching of physical education in primary schools – especially between the ages of 7 and 11. Writing against a background of unprecedented funding for PE and youth sport in England and Wales in the mid-to late 2000s, Kirk argued that such money (over a £1 billion) should be carefully targeted to maximise its potential to be impactful. Drawing on research around learning in PE he held that the most effective way to use it was, in a nutshell, to spend it on specialist physical education primary school teachers.

Kirk indicated that early learning experiences are critical to continuing involvement in high quality physical activity but believed that particular sections of the populations are denied access to such provision. Be they girls (see Blog 32), black or ethnic minorities, lower class, or disabled (see blog 31) these students are discriminated against. They are discriminated against in terms of opportunities and experiences – and this is not an issue only reserved for primary schools. However, as it stands primary schools are poorly positioned (in terms of expertise) to positively impact on the majority of their students – and should be commended for the work that they do in the space, time and with the knowledge that there teachers have. However, it is important that when funding is available it is appropriately allocated and spent, and given the importance of early learning on future participation it seems appropriate to spend it in primary schools.

Drawing on an example from research in elite sport, Kirk suggested that it takes 10 years to become an expert performer. Yet this expertise is developed in three phases – phases that must start at the beginning and at the appropriate age level, because without this sequential form of development there can be no next phase.

The first stage is a sampling phase where kids aged 7-11 should experience a range of activities for fun and enjoyment, in the form of playing and not training (what is called deliberate play). Stage two is a specialising phase where the range of activities is reduced and deliberate play is replaced with deliberate practice. At the end of this stage kids have the choice to drop out, enter recreational sport or move to phases three – the investment phase. This final phase is a time for one sport and the commitment to train regularly.

Yet, without the first stage the other stages are either muted or impossible. Early skill development and the harbouring of positive attitudes towards sport are important and specialists (not secondary school teachers located in primary schools but appropriately educated teachers) would be positioned to facilitate this. Schools remain the most likely pace where children will gain quality experiences of PE and PA but can primary school provide this experiences? By focusing our efforts and resources here then perhaps, over time, we can seek to enhance these crucial experiences.

So whilst Kirk asked for more funding to be targeted to primary schools, I ask us to consider, if it was what would we do with it to support the sampling stage of development that Kirk is advocating for?


What’s next? As part of this series of blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research- Think, Act, Change (or TAC for short).

Think about findings of the paper – do they resonate? Use the comment box below to ask question, seek clarification, may be challenge the findings.?

Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is this your responsibility or just something else to be put on your plate? Is there action to take? If so, what might it be.

Change what you do in response to your thoughts and actions? Is this a personal undertaking? Please let the community know about it.

I wouldn’t expect every paper to get beyond the T or even the A of TAC but if one paper resonates enough to get to C then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.


Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Vicky Goodyear whose work behind the scene as copy editor is a vital part of getting this blog out on time and in a semblance of coherence.