“The aim is not for us to teach them to leave their chairs, so they can be better when they return. Our aim is to help them find a realm where they can experience some freedom, adventure, grace, excellence, strength, beauty and friendship away from chairs and to keep returning to that as it contributes to living a good life.” – Kretchmar (1995)
In the past fortnight I have either listened to or read other people’s opinions about the power of PE and it frustrates and disappoints me. “PE will lead to a healthy and active nation“. “PE will solve the mental health crisis that children and young people are suffering after Covid“. “PE will ensure sporting success at the international level“. “PE will develop the life skills children need for a life at work“. It seems that all the desired health, wellbeing, character, employment skills and sports performance outcomes we want in this country can be provided by some utopian and unrealistic version of PE. Whilst I understand why we have this discourse, I’m deeply unsympathetic to it. We need to take much more care about advocacy for our subject and its stewardship.
Firstly I question the espoused direct causal impact PE has on these desired outcomes. Many of them are supported, by my understanding of the evidence base, from the daily engagement in some form of personally significant physical activity to the individual. Call it what you will but I call it the physically educated person. James MacAllister defines physically educated people as “as those who have learned to arrange their lives in such a way that the habitual physical activities they freely engage in make a distinctive contribution to their wider flourishing.“ It is daily engagement in personally significant forms of movement that comes with many well documented benefits in the physical, cognitive, social and affective domains. However even then, daily physical activity on its own (no matter how powerful it is), won’t solve complex social problems like obesity. but may contribute to lessening them.
Secondly I question the espoused direct casual impact PE has on nurturing the physically educated person. PE should have this as its central focus and can certainly take shoulder some of the responsibility, but it is a shared responsibility. It takes a community to nurture a physically educated person. Parents, teachers, schools, community sports clubs, youth clubs, public health bodies, local government etc. all thinking carefully about the environment they create and all working together to make a positive contribution.
For PE to have value and therefore any real power, learning has to be central to it. PE at its core is embodied and relational. It’s about developing positive relationships:
- with our own bodies
- with culturally relevant forms of movement
- with our environment
PE the subject is the place where all children and young people have the opportunity to learn about their bodies and human movement in a way that can contribute to finding meaning and expressing their own particular identity. We offer a way of developing knowledge of the world and understanding and relating to the world which is embodied, experiential and educative. This is what makes it unique, valuable and therefore powerful as no other subject has this as their central purpose. The outcomes that we attach to PE might be important to governments and society, but they are by-products of our central educative aim, not what the core of the subject should be built upon.
The power of PE is not as a simple catchall solution to complex societal problems such as combating obesity, dealing with poor mental health or winning gold medals at the next Olympic Games. The true power of PE is how it can positively contribute to the nurturing of the physically educated person in partnership with the local community, but to do that it needs to be done with thoughtfulness, with care, with compassion and with education at its core. Whilst that might not be catchy when advocating on behalf of the subject, like with most things of any true value, real advocacy just doesn’t work if all we do is state unqualified slogans about the supposed power of PE.