PE on the playground: How to design an obstacle course

PE on the playground: How to design an obstacle course

Educators across the country agree: teaching PE during pandemic times is exceptionally hard!

In my elementary school, teachers have limited or no gym access, no access to equipment, and clear guidelines that direct us to limit physical contact. With so many go-to games and activities off-limits, it’s a real struggle to find creative solutions to help students develop fundamental movement skills in meaningful ways.

One simple solution that has worked for my Grade 5 class is to hack the school playground and work together as a class to create a skill-building obstacle course. 

Here’s my recipe for a pandemic-safe PE unit that blends physical literacy, applied design, and fun. This unit can bring some purpose and a focus to your outdoor PE class, encouraging students to be active and work together to spread the fun. 

Start with basic movement skills

Give students the chance to explore the playground equipment differently by asking them to find different ways to use the spaces. 

You can say things like, “Pick three different places on the playground where you can jump,” or “Find three places where you can balance.”

Have students take turns showing you and each other all the spots on the playground where they can demonstrate basic movement skills, like:

  • Hopping
  • Jumping (straight, side, distance, height)
  • Balancing (while walking, standing)
  • Climbing (up, down, under)
  • Going under
  • Going through
  • Going over 

Get creative with the equipment

A bench doesn’t have to be for sitting—it can be a place to jump from. Crawl like a bear up the slide or climb the fireman’s pole instead of going down it.

Here are some more things to try:

  • Stand and balance on a spring rider or see-saw
  • Crawl under the swings
  • Swing and long jump off the monkey bars
  • Plank on the bench

Related read: 8 no-touch group games kids can play together

Start pulling all the elements together

If your students are like mine, by this point they have probably come up with all kinds of creative challenges on the playground. Now it’s time to up the ante and challenge them to create an obstacle course for the rest of the class to try.  

Give your students a clear explanation of what you want them to do, and what boundaries or rules they need to follow. For example, the obstacle course needs a clear start and finish. The route needs to follow a clear direction, and each stop should invite a change of activity.

You can also ask students to include a short list of particular movements, or to come up with variations that would allow classmates with mobility challenges to participate. 

Conduct trials and test runs

In our class, students worked in small groups of two to three, but bigger groups of four to five kids could work well too.

After designing the course, groups in the class challenged each other, adding to and adapting activities to make them harder or easier, also allowing them to adjust their expectations.

Weave in some STEAM

You can incorporate some math and art into your unit too. Challenge older students to sketch a bird’s-eye view of the playground. They could also calculate the perimeter and area, and label the various equipment. Students can then indicate on their sketches where each activity is to be performed. You could also use satellite images from Google Earth to help plan the obstacle course layout.

For younger students, you can skip this part and create a template that each group will mark with the instructions for their obstacle course. 

You could ask students to draw stick-figure illustrations that show what to do, or take pictures of the students doing each activity. Glue these on the template near the area of the playground where the action happens.

Related read: Take your students outside (yes, during class time)

Bring it to other classrooms

If your class is having fun with this, why not challenge the other kids at school?

In our class, I assigned my students to create either a primary-level obstacle course for kids aged 5-8 or an intermediate-level one for ages 9-12 (you can adjust depending on the ages at your school). The kids worked together to modify their courses to make them suitable for their assigned grade levels. 

When everyone was finished, we blended together the best ideas to come up with a single, super-fun version for both age groups. We integrated skills like backward bear crawls across the playground bridge and swinging long jumps off the monkey bars. Then we challenged different classrooms to try our obstacle course.

First, my class walked the other kids through the challenges, explaining and demonstrating each station, showing others how to climb the fireman pole, and how to do two flips around the bars. After our training session, we left a copy of our obstacle course with each teacher, so that they could run the activity during outdoor PE time.

We saw students training and practicing their skills all the time—before school, at recess, at lunch, and after school, always trying to improve their finish times. 

This meant that for some classrooms, outdoor time now had a clear purpose. Students enjoyed learning, teamwork, physical activity, and most importantly, had lots of fun.

Take it further: Make it a school-wide competition

Now that your students have come up with so many cool ways to move, can you get the whole school involved in creating something? Maybe each class could create an obstacle course to provide to the other classes.

Or maybe each class could hold an event to find their top competitor, who could advance to compete with others for the fastest time?

The options don’t stop there. Why not get the whole school moving and working towards a common goal?

Have fun!

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.

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