The importance of physical education (PE) and sport and their impact on physical activity and health has been highlighted throughout 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic. Restrictions on movement during lockdown and the paradox of being directed to move through a screen required quick thinking and adaptation. In many cases, a pragmatic approach and optimistic outlook has encouraged teachers, coaches, parents and students to become more creative in the way they move and are physically active. If we are to reflect on our own experiences of physical activity, pre- and post-lockdown, we may observe some differences. Team sports and physical contact were suspended; in their place walking, running, cycling and ‘Joe Wicks style’ high intensity training emerged. As we move into a new phase of the pandemic, with restrictions relaxing in Singapore, we can begin to question what do students' value in their PE lessons and sport sessions, and if they are generating meaningful experiences that not only engage them in PE and sport right now but prepare them for the future.
What is a meaningful experience?
Understanding meaningful experiences in PE and sport on a global level requires looking back to a time before the COVID-19 pandemic. The United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation set out guidelines for policy makers, teachers and stakeholders only six years ago about what ‘quality physical education’ is and looks like in practice (UNESCO, 2015). In short, quality PE seeks to address health concerns among students and to promote lifelong physical activity (Dudley et al., 2016). A recent review of literature about students’ meaningful experiences in PE and sport highlighted five components vital to the promotion of quality PE: social interaction, fun, challenge, motor competence, and personally relevant learning (Beni et al., 2017), and referred specifically to dance, aquatics, gymnastics and games (e.g. football, netball, basketball) from a wide range of countries over the last 30 years. The five components can provide a framework for future practices in PE and sport, in particular with regard to student agency. This article expands upon the importance of the five components in informing the planning and delivery of PE and sport in a post-COVID-19 environment, with the aim of promoting meaningful experiences, student health, and preparing students for lifelong physical activity.
Meaningful is understood in a broad sense within PE and sport, and includes the full range of human experiences that may occur; all the emotions, perceptions, hopes, dreams and other cognitions associated with valuing physical movement and physical activity (Beni et al., 2017). Providing students with a personally meaningful experience, something that holds personal significance, has long been an objective that PE teachers strive towards (Beni et al., 2019). It has been highlighted how students are more likely to commit to physical activity based on intrinsic motivational factors, such as meaningfulness, satisfaction, pleasure, and joy rather than for extrinsic reasons, such as improved physical fitness and weight management (Teixeira et al., 2012). There are additional sources of data that support the argument that students are more likely to enjoy participating in an activity if the outcomes are meaningful, satisfying and provide joy (Barker et al., 2019).
The Five Components: What are they really?
Research emphasising that we are more likely to enjoy participating in an activity that is meaningful and satisfying is unlikely to be a surprise. Young people are often happy to share the sort of activities they enjoy most and why they enjoy them. The challenge initially lay in how PE teachers could ensure these activities were personally meaningful, educational and fit within the culture of the school. COVID-19 restrictions and limitations have increased thechallenges faced by teachers and coaches when combating physical inactivity and mental health issues among students. If we are to address the individual needs of each student in a PE setting, drawing out what is meaningful to them can provide a firm starting point for guiding teaching and coaching practice. , Beni et al, (2017) found that the following five common components were found to be relevant to students and their experiences in PE:
- Social interaction: students share positive interactions with others, including both peers and the teacher, and have opportunities to work and/or play in groups.
- Challenge: students are enabled to participate in activities that are neither too easy nor too difficult by modifying games and/or activities and allowing students to make choices.
- Fun: students find lessons to hold immediate enjoyment.
- Motor competence: students learn and develop physical skills necessary to engage in activities and perceive themselves to be or become competent.
- Personally relevant learning: students understand what they are learning, why it matters, and how it relates to their lives beyond the PE environment.
One key outcome was that a balance or combination of these components was more meaningful to students than focusing on a single component. Therefore, a combination of these components would encourage student learning and participation in PE. The prevalence of these components of meaningfulness as expressed by students provide teachers, coaches and parents with a robust framework, supported by evidence, to help them identify what to prioritise in order to promote meaningful experiences. However, beyond what typically constitutes a meaningful experience, little is known about how practising PE teachers and sport coaches might go about using these components to guide their decision-making in the planning and enactment of their lessons. Several pedagogical models, particularly those grounded in student-centred pedagogies, such as Sport Education and Game-Centred Approaches, contain strategies that teachers have used to promote meaningfulness (Beni et al., 2019). For example, students have responded favourably to the use of the Sport Education model. This is pedagogical model that has been championed as a more authentic and enjoyable way to learn about sport, supported by extensive data collected over the last 40 years. The Sport Education model provides students with opportunities to take on a variety of roles and responsibilities (e.g. captain, coach, referee, statistician) in a team setting, learning about the rules, techniques and etiquette of specific sports (e.g. rugby, football, basketball) (Gil-Arias et al., 2017).
Implications for now and the future
With restrictions easing, we can be optimistic yet pragmatic about the future of our own physical activity and health. During lockdown, many sought to replicate all five components in their own context. Joe Wicks was often hailed as someone who tapped into these five components to engage with a large, often young, online audience. Families took on the role of social interaction, taking part in physical activity together during lockdown; going on bike rides, walks or runs around their local environment. In Singapore, restrictions have eased for social interactions to take place, but challenges still exist with initially five and now eight individuals able to participate together in PE and sport. Continuing to keep students engaged in fun and challenging ways requires a high level of creativity. Now that students have had the opportunity to explore or compare and contrast their own physical activity preferences, personally relevant learning is more important than it may have been previously. Teachers and schools who provide personally relevant learning are equipping students for an uncertain future in the world. In a PE context, this means encouraging students to take ownership of their learning activities, to work alongside teachers and peers and create their own meaningful experiences in PE and sport. Increasing student agency in the present will provide them with the tools to continue being physically active in the future.
In summary, the importance of social interaction, fun, challenge, motor competence, and personally relevant learning in creating meaningful experiences for students has been shown to provide a useful framework to guide planning and delivery of PE and sport experiences by teachers, parents and coaches interested in promoting meaningful engagement. Students have an increasingly larger role to play in shaping their own learning to make it personally relevant. Recent memory would inform us of the importance of remaining physically active for a myriad of reasons (i.e. mental, physical, and emotional health). In an unpredictable future, students will need to be resourceful and proactive if they, and their children, are to continue engaging in sport and health promoting activities.
Barker, D., Nyberg, G. and Larsson, H. (2019) Joy, fear and resignation: investigating emotions in physical education using a symbolic interactionist approach. Sport, Education and Society.
Beni, S., Fletcher, T. and Chróinín, D.N. (2019) Using features of meaningful experiences to guide primary physical education practice. European Physical Education Review, 25 (3): 599–615.
Beni, S., Fletcher, T. and Ní Chróinín, D. (2017) Meaningful Experiences in Physical Education and Youth Sport: A Review of the Literature. Quest, 69 (3): 291–312.
Dudley, D., Goodyear, V. and Baxter, D. (2016) Quality and Health-Optimizing Physical Education: Using Assessment at the Health and Education Nexus. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 35 (4): 324–336.
Gil-Arias, A., Harvey, S., Cárceles, A., et al. (2017) Impact of a hybrid TGfU-Sport Education unit on student motivation in physical education. PLoS ONE, 12 (6): 1–17.
Teixeira, P.J., Carraça, E. V., Markland, D., et al. (2012) Exercise, physical activity, and self-determination theory: A systematic review. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 9 (1): 78–108.
UNESCO (2015) Quality Physical Education: Guidelines for Policy-Makers. Paris.