Reflections on physical education

Today physical education functions as an afterthought when it comes to what we deem as important in a child’s education in school. Though the subject has been made compulsory in schools by all the boards in India and you might see a P.T period in a child’s time-table, it really doesn’t guarantee that every child in every school in India gets a chance to play a  minimum of 120 minutes every week.

Before I go ahead it is important here to define the word, ‘play’ as I see it. When I say a child should get 120 minutes of play, by play we mean, ‘ a well-planned, well-structured and an adult supervised P.T. period which is based on a grade-specific curriculum and is considered a learning opportunity for a child to embody important skills and values’. In the current scenario a PT period or physical education as a subject is not really looked at as a learning opportunity by schools.

A P.T period’s goal as I have observed is limited to a few things- to make children fit and not fat, to tire children out enough so that their energy can be curtailed for the more important periods, to make sports teams for schools from a bunch of selected students, to prepare for the independence and republic day functions, and to instill a sense of discipline in students. 

By limiting physical education as a subject that caters to a few things mentioned above is a major missed opportunity of our education system. If look deeper into why has physical education become an after-thought it could be traced to the narrative that has been built around the importance of mind over body and dualist theories that separate mind from the body. Our bodies are considered as an entity that is prone to give in to desires and commit sins, thus a body needs to be controlled, maintained, trained by the mind to function in a certain way. Thus the onus of education is unevenly tilted towards developing the mind and not our body. The popular notion in the western cultures, of why a child should play in school is because an ill or a weak body would not be able to perform intellectual labours to the fullest. Thus, physical education is never considered an end in itself, but as a vehicle for the development of the mind.

When I make a case for physical education I have to reject the dualist theories, that separate the mind from the body. I do believe that an intellectual activity can only occur through bodily experience. A P.T. period is an opportunity to become aware of our embodiment through physical activities and games, and rebalances a school curriculum’s emphasis on the development of mind. A unified theory also emphasizes the fact that human beings actively interact with their environment to make sense of the world and not just through passive contemplative perception of the world. To say it quite simply, P.E. gives an opportunity to the child to learn, to think and to do and relearn all at the same time through the body first which then sparks intellectual reasoning. 

Just like any other subject, P.E. curriculum also is built on a few concepts that are critical to us while building a curriculum framework. These concepts are also unique to P.E. and point out at why P.E. is critical to a child’s growth. Let me briefly reflect on some I have discovered till now. 

Concept of Body- 

The physiological and biological development and the connection of the body with the mind is well-researched and documented. The way a sports scientist looks at bodies and a physical education teacher looks at bodies cannot be the same. A scientist looks at bodies as something that needs to optimized, maintained, managed and conditioned, though a P.E teacher needs to adopt a much more holistic view of bodies. A school is a space of different kinds of bodies. Bodies of different genders, caste, size, colour, abuse, built, strengths and weaknesses. A child’s body is an important way in which he builds his own self-image and self respect. A child from an early stage learns about the world through his bodily senses. A child’s body cannot be thought of in the limitations of its ‘use’ but rather as his ‘being’. It is something that a child cant do without because as living being his body is not just a mere object but something he lives and inhabits, and most importantly is a reason for his very own subjective and unique experience. 

When a fat boy and a thin boy play football, their bodies do determine the way the team will perceive their roles on the ground. Simultaneously, both the boys will develop their own perception of what their bodies can do and not. Both their experiences while the act of playing football will be very different, though extremely important to their own learning about self and their team mates. They will know about their limitations, their aesthetic and technical abilities around hitting and receiving a ball, and also about their emotions while playing. Most importantly a description of their subjective experience is not just a collection of their inner thought process, but it will also reflect on their engagement with the outer world that exists independently of their own existence. None of this learning is possible without their bodies being present on the ground along with their minds.

Concept of Gender and Gender stereotypes-

Bodies and gender are very closely connected. Children explore their own bodies and that of others to determine their own values, biases and thoughts around gender and mostly without any adult supervision in school. The idea of what a girl can do on a sports field and a boy can do on a sports field is predetermined through social constructs and not physical capabilities. While girls in our program have showed massive improvement than boys in physical tests, this doesn’t really change the fact that girls who are good in sport are generally feared to develop masculine attitudes and bodies, which is both feared and looked down upon by parents and teachers. Sports is for boys/men and girls are better cheer leaders, this is sadly an adult notion passed on to both genders. A well-structured P.T. period can help both genders understand and explore their gender and stereotypes while also breaking them. We have witnessed some amazing stories of children changing the way they thought about sport and how gender shouldn’t really affect their performance on field.

In a school I worked in there is a girl who wears a boy’s uniform and asks teachers to address her as a boy. She also hangs around with boys and doesn’t like her name because it is that of a girl’s. She is jut 9-year-old, with her hair cut short and her body language is just like that of her brother’s. While in the classroom, lunch breaks and art periods her being a girl did not really affect her, but a sports period did make her think. In any games and races she played, she wanted to be a part of the boys teams and do exactly what the boys were doing. She realized she was the slowest and the weakest amongst the boys and in any team game boys treated her very differently. After a few P.T. periods of feeling neglected by her boy class mates, she tried to compete with the girls. She immediately realized a change in her performance and the treatment she received from her girl team mates. For quite some time now she has been struggling with trying to place herself and a P.T period has started that journey of self-discovery of her own gender for her. 

Concept of rules:

When a child plays she is an unique position to feel free to explore, discover, express thoughts or ideas, to invent and to create. The act of playing is fundamental to physical education. As adults we try to recapture the spontaneity and freedom through game playing. For example most of us are eager to find free time in our daily routine to play an organized game like cricket, tennis or football to energise ourselves. Though if you think about it is this a paradox? We leave a relatively structured place of work and enter a rigorously structured sphere of games that is full of rules and regulations which we don’t really enjoy in real lives. Why then do we still feel free and enjoy when we play?

The moderate amount of finitude in the form of games and sports gives us those opportunities where we come to know the possibility of our bodily limitations. Rules force our body to confront and embody our limitations, and actually thus enhancing our embodied freedom. If there is nothing restricting us there is no scope to explore freedom, creativity or a sense of discovery. Structured games  are the obvious means to engage in experiences that focus our consciousness and our bodies to pursue a set of possibilities, it also gives us space to explore freedom, freedom that is impossible in reality, explore in safety and learn from experience without the consequences of real life. 

Physical education is in a unique position to teach children the importance of rules in games and thus also in life. If there no rules there will be chaos, and it will seriously affect the way we can perform, function and grow. Rules empower you and donot restrict you is a lesson that a P.T. period can teach.

Concept of Moral values:

Sports develops character is one of the most used arguments to make a case for teaching sports in schools.  We hope that if children participate in sports, the moral values they learn will positively get transferred to real life. Though, I don’t fully agree with this thought. Sports developing character is not really a necessary condition.  While we have examples of sportsperson who are morally sound humans, we also have enough examples of  sportsperson being amoral. A Federer or Nadal could be an example of the first statement, a Lance Armstrong can be an example of the preceding statement. 

Saying this sports has tremendous potential to develop character though only in the right setting and the right environment. Sports will teach you things like following rules, play fairly, be gracious winners, accept losing and respect their opponent. Though the possibility of all this happening is very much dependent on the atmosphere he lives and learns in and the P.T. teacher’s own moral values. Just like any skill, moral values like honesty and fairness needs to be made a routine practice and needs to be made habitual. 

Most of the time when a child cheats on the playground and is strong enough, he tries to bully his way through the game. When this happens children complaint about him cheating sometimes, are too scared to report it, or they don’t realise it. In such a scenario what the P.T. teacher choses to do about the situation is what is the most important step towards will the boy cheating learn his mistake or not. Generally a PT teacher will ignore the cheating or punish the boy and make him stand out and humiliate him. The correct course according to me would be that the teacher is extremely aware of what happened in the session, and instead of humiliating or pointing it out he holds a discussion with the children on what exactly happened in the game. How did they feel when he cheated and the team won? How did he feel while he was cheating? How does cheating and winning feel? 

When a P.T. teacher would be able to use these situations constructively to help children learn and reflect from moral and amoral behavior not once but a 100 times there is then may be some potential to expect sports to build character. 

So yes, sports builds character in the right environment, in the right spirit, and finally when like any other skills children are trained in actually practicing moral values till they become habitual.

Concept of Inclusion:

Sports participation provides a focus for social activity, an opportunity to make friends, develop networks and reduce social isolation, it seems well placed to support the development of social capital. A series of connected dimensions of social inclusion can be used from the literature that offer a useful framework for considering sport’s potential contribution to social inclusion.

First, the functional dimension of social inclusion relates to the enhancement of knowledge, skills and understanding. Sport, it is claimed, provides opportunities for the development of valued capabilities and competencies. Discussion in this area has focused primarily on the social character of most and the hypothesis that the need for individuals to work collaboratively will encourage the development of skills like trust empathy personal responsibility and cooperation.

Second, social inclusion can be defined in relational terms, such as a sense of social acceptance. Sport might play a role, here, by offering young people a sense of belonging, to a team, a club or community. Large numbers of people give a great deal of time to participate in sport, whether as a player, an organizer or a spectator. Players sometimes claim that sport can act as a point of shared interest bringing families together and encouraging people to interact in the broader community and beyond, often with people of different social backgrounds.

Third, there is a spatial dimension, as social inclusion relates to proximity and the closing of social and economic distances. Certainly, there are frequent claims that sport brings individuals from a variety of social and economic backgrounds together in a shared interest in activities that are seen to be inherently valuable. For example, there is a popular view that sport’s non-verbal format can help overcome linguistic and cultural barriers more easily than other areas of social life. And the valued and socially prestigious character of sport could mean that people who might not otherwise meet come together for the sake of a shared passion.

Finally, social inclusion assumes a change in the locus of power. Sport contributes to social inclusion, in this respect, to the extent that it increases individuals’ sense of control over their lives by extending social networks, increased community cohesion and civic pride. The establishment of social networks is a key feature of socially inclusive practices. This is especially important, it could be argued, within the context of sport for at-risk youth, for whom social and organized settings can be sources of anxiety or disaffection. 

Physical education in India vastly remains the most underrated subjects in schools. Given the innumerable things it can help children discover and learn I wonder why is it so? May be because the sole intention of a school education is to find a high paying job and P.E. is incapable of providing one. Though should schools aim just for employing our youth or also on developing a generation that respects their bodies and that of others, that includes diversity and celebrates it, that respects and treats a person on actions and not their gender, that values the role of rules, and can differentiate between moral and amoral?