PE during a pandemic: How to help your students focus on building skills

This year has been a tough one for teachers. We’re all still adjusting to the new routines and rules required to stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. And the list of games and activities we would normally lean on to give our students a much-needed activity break between lessons has been significantly curtailed by the restrictions.

At my school, for example, our gym is off-limits due to new COVID-related protocols, and we have been restricted from accessing the shared gym equipment.

It has left teachers scratching their heads. How can we make PE class meaningful and focused under these conditions? What else can we offer our students beyond free time on the playground?

Not only have teachers been scrambling, but students—without the comfort of the familiar rules in the gymnasium—have been unfocused and unmotivated to practice structured activities in spaces that were designed and intended for free play. When the “classroom” is outdoors, we have to help our students understand that rules around following directions and instructions still apply, just as they did indoors.

Here are some tips that have worked for my middle-grade students to encourage them to focus, practice, and try their best.

1. Teach something in each PE lesson

This might sound like a no-brainer, but there have been lots of times where I’ve just released the hounds and let the kids enjoy the playground with no real direction or purpose. Setting the tone before you start, with a short review of a particular skill or concept, will give students something to think about as they play. It also gives us teachers something to focus on and build on throughout the year.

It could be something simple like saying, “Today, we’re going to focus on balance.” Or show a video before heading outside to get the kids thinking about that particular skill and where they can practice it on the playground.


Related read: Check out our collection of fundamental movement skills videos


2. Mix it up

Even the most exciting lessons and topics can be a bore if they drag on too long. Every second or third class, switch it up with a game or new skill to focus on. If you’re focusing on catching and throwing [PDF], for example, every few classes, throw in a playground game of Floor is Lava after a couple of sessions.

3. Let them choose

Especially if you teach middle-grade or older students, they already have a lot of experience with PE games and activities. You can ask the kids to help choose a game or assign a pair of students to lead others through some exercises to show off some of the fundamental movement skills they’ve been practicing.

They can follow the leaders through all the various places on the playground, fields, and open spaces to demonstrate specific skills and abilities.

4. Give students meaningful feedback

Just like it’s important to provide students with feedback on their reading and writing, giving them useful and positive pointers when they’re exercising will help them build skill and confidence. Try to avoid comments such as “good job,” as these are often overused and can be too vague.

Here are some example of constructive feedback:

  • “I can see how hard you are working.”
  • “You were so nervous, and you did it!”
  • “Can you show me where else you can stand on one leg?”
  • “Okay. This time when you’re pushing up, can you wave to me?”

Little nudges and prompts will help encourage students to try new things, and inspire them to push the limits of their abilities, learn new skills and feel motivated to try again.

5. Keep it fun

Remember to smile, join in the fun, play some music, and just enjoy being active together.

PE resources for teachers

Ideas for brain and movement breaks

For kindergarten and Grade 1 teachers

Resources to support physical literacy at home

Marta Orellana teaches upper intermediate grades in a North Vancouver elementary school, where PE is generally taught by classroom teachers rather than PE specialist teachers.

One response to “PE during a pandemic: How to help your students focus on building skills

  1. A great compilation of tips. It’s a tough gig to teach P.E. when you’re not trained in it, so these are definitely important things to keep in mind! Lots of fantastic resources that I use as a P.E. specialist too.

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