Visit a school where PE is about skills, and sports include everyone

Visit a school where PE is about skills, and sports include everyone

Many of us have hateful memories of PE class and school sports in general. Whether it was feeling inadequate, being cut from tryouts, or getting heckled for being a klutz, it’s easy to look back and ask what value any of it had.

In Victoria, there’s one elementary school that is clearly demonstrating the value of school PE and sports. Under the guidance of PE specialist teacher Samantha Butler, St. Patrick’s Elementary School gets all of their students playing and having fun with real skills development.

Active for Life spoke with Samantha recently to discover the keys to delivering quality PE programming and fun, inclusive school sport.

What is your official job title?  

I’m a PE specialist, and my official title at the school is Athletic Director. I’m also the school counselor, and I teach a leadership program for our grade six and seven students.

Can you tell me how St. Patrick’s views the role of PE and sport?

We see PE and physical activity as key components of the entire education process. There are so many aspects that sport and physical activity touches — the spiritual, the intellectual, the personal — all of the elements that make you a person. Daily physical activity helps the students with their classroom focus and their academics. It helps them to be healthier, smarter kids. We believe that physical activity needs to be a daily consideration for every person in an active, healthy lifestyle, so we put that first and foremost in our school.

How do you structure sport and PE into the school year?

At St. Patrick’s, every class has two PE classes per week throughout the year, and they also have daily physical activity, or DPA. All of it is programmed into each class’s annual schedule. Every classroom teacher is required to submit a class schedule to the office, and on days where they don’t have PE, they are required to schedule DPA into that day. They can’t just say, “Oh, we’ll do it whenever.” It has to be clearly structured into their timetable.

We also have Thursday afternoon sports training where the school offers our older grades the opportunity to do a few weeks of lessons in a particular sport or physical activity that interests them. In the past, our students have done things like capoeira and rock climbing, for example. In a similar way, we do gymnastics training with the kindergarten kids, and we do swimming with Grades 1, 2, and 3 students in addition to their PE and DPA.

Let’s imagine you’re a primary class and it’s not a PE day or a swimming lesson day. What might your DPA look like?

A lot of our teachers have gone to Brain Gym, so they might get the kids to stand up and do a bit of yoga, or they will do some body-crossover movement exercises. All of the teachers have done the Action Schools BC program, and they all have basic equipment in their classroom, so it could be a range of things. I used to send out my DPA idea of the week, but now many of the teachers have their own bank of activities that they like to use.

We have also designed a simple training circuit for our playground, so teachers can take their class out there and do a variety of things in the circuit such as wall pushups and toe-taps. It all depends on the weather of course, but even if it’s pouring rain that day, they still need to have something to do.

When DPA is scheduled into the day, how much activity time do they do?

They have to do at least 30 minutes.

Some classes will have it structured so that they go out and do an activity with the other class in their same grade. For example, one of the Grade 4 teachers takes both Grade 4 classes and uses a small portion of gym time that isn’t already scheduled for PE to do dance instruction with all of the kids.

Sometimes we will let the older kids choose what their class will do for DPA that day. We give them some suggestions and ideas, but they make the choice and then lead the activity.

Every school in BC is supposed to be doing this, but often they just take the kids outside and give them an extra recess. So the same kid who would be sitting and reading a book inside is still sitting and reading a book, but now he’s doing it outside.

It seems like you’re putting a lot of trust in your teachers by giving them different options and resources.

When we first started, I used to lead a lot of whole-school activities for DPA. For example, we used to do “Bounce at the Bell” where the kids and teachers would jump in the air 10 times whenever the bell went during the day. Each week at the Monday school assembly, we would demonstrate a new kind of jump, such as a star jump or a tuck jump. Whenever the bell went during the day, absolutely everyone in the school would get up and do 10 jumps.

Since then, our DPA has steadily evolved to where the teachers generally use their own bank of activities through the year, and I’m here as a resource if they need more ideas.

There are so many great DPA resources out there. I don’t know how many schools actually do it, but I know we make a very honest effort here.

Outside of PE class and DPA, what extracurricular sports teams and physical activities does the school offer?

We start with cross country and soccer in the fall, then we move to basketball and swimming, then volleyball after Christmas, then badminton and track in the spring. We also have a jazz dance club and an Irish dance club. Last spring, we joined a local event called the Bike Jam for the first time, and we had 37 super keen kids participate, so this year we are hoping to have a school cycling team.

What is the school policy for team tryouts in different sports? Do you have cuts?

We don’t turn anyone away. If we have 50 kids try out for soccer, we will simply create 3 teams.

Last year, we ended up having 4 volleyball teams because we had so many interested kids. Often we only have enough kids to make a combined Grade 6 and 7 team, but we ended up having enough for separate Grade 6 and Grade 7 teams.

To be perfectly honest, if we had simply taken the best of the two grades and made one team, we would have had one killer team. But you need to look at the kids and what they want. All of the Grade 6 kids wanted to stay together, and all of the Grade 7 kids wanted to stay together. They didn’t care that there was a mix of abilities on the team.

We still ended up with 2 very strong teams. The Grade 7 kids ended up playing in the competitive school league, and the Grade 6 team ended up playing in the recreational league because they were mostly new to the sport and it was a better fit for them. It really depends on the year and the kids, but we do not cut kids.

Outside of PE class, DPA, and school teams, you also have intramural sports during lunch recess. Do you align these 3 in any way?

We actually connect our PE instructional units with both our extracurricular sport teams and our intramural leagues.

So for example, when we have our extracurricular soccer teams for Grades 6 and 7 in the fall, we are teaching soccer during our PE time, and then we have an intramural soccer league during the lunch hour for Grades 4 to 7. So students have indoor soccer available at lunch, outdoor soccer available after school if they are Grade 6 or 7, and a combination of indoor and outdoor soccer during their PE class. So they get a very thorough understanding of that sport.

The intramural program is not about having a winning team, but very much about getting everyone to participate in an activity, especially if their schedule doesn’t allow them to play on the school team after school. If they have other commitments after 3 o’clock, they can still choose to play in the intramural league at lunch.

Through the intramural games, our Grade 4 and 5 students also get a chance to discover if they like a particular sport, so then they know when they reach Grade 6 whether or not they would like to play on the school team.

We do this with our soccer season, our basketball season, our volleyball season, our badminton season, our track and field season. In the spring, we also run an intramural floor hockey for the Grade 3 students.

What kind of feedback have you received from parents about the PE program at St Patrick’s and its role in the life of the school?

We get excellent feedback. We actually do a student and a parent survey every year, and the PE program is always very highly rated. I think they’re happy because the level of participation in our school is huge.

If you look at our school track team, it’s basically a 90% participation rate from Grades 3 through 7. It’s massive. One of our 2 Grade 6 classes had 100% participation last year. In most of our classes, there are only 2 or 3 kids out of each class of 24 kids who are not participating.

It doesn’t matter if you are not the fastest kid or the best jumper — we will find something that you will shine in — whether it’s shot put, or sprinting, or high jump, or hurdles, or distance. We do general training in all of the events with all of the kids, and then we figure out where they will enjoy the most personal success.

It’s pretty amazing seeing the kids who come out thinking that they aren’t very athletic, and then they find something they are good at, and it makes them happy. And the parents are happy because everyone is included.

Our kids end up developing a very high level of skills. We only have 350 students, so we have a very small pool of kids to draw from, yet our teams manage to do very well. For example, our boys volleyball team placed 4th in the city last year, and our girls were the city champions the year before.

The school hasn’t selected students on the basis of athletic prowess, so what do you see as the key to developing those kinds of skills?

We start them early, and we teach them the basics. When they come to PE class to do badminton, they learn how to hold the racquet properly, and they learn all of the fundamental skills associated with that sport. When they do volleyball, they learn how to do a forearm pass and how to volley. They are learning those skills. We don’t just throw a bunch of balls onto the court and say, “Okay, let’s go.”

There will always be a bit of free time and warm up, but we are otherwise very structured and very specific with the skills from early on. We are also teaching them how to skip, gallop, and hop from an early age, so they get the basics that transfer to a multitude of sports.

St. Patrick’s finishes at the end of grade seven, and the kids go to many different schools from there. Do you get much feedback on how these kids do in their sports afterwards?

In general, we find that they continue to participate and they tend to find a lot of success wherever they go. And that’s our big message when they leave at the end of Grade 7 — just keep participating in the activities you love, enjoy them, and see where it takes you.

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