Monday 22 November 2021

Meaningful PE - Secondary Students’ Perspectives

Submitted by: Jodi Harding-Kuriger, PhD, HPEC President

What are Meaningful PE experiences? 

With gratitude to the student participants and their teachers, we share with you secondary students’ perspectives on Meaningful PE (Fletcher., Ní Chróinín., Gleddie., & Beni, 2021) experiences as described during my recent dissertation research (Harding-Kuriger, 2021).  Meaningful PE experiences are co-created by physical educators and students in a democratic learning space and through reflection, both individually and collectively. Secondary students explained what Meaningful PE is for them and how to co-create Meaningful PE experiences. They encourage teachers aiming for Meaningful PE  to use the democratic principles of autonomy and inclusivity (Fletcher & Ní Chróinín, 2021) and make time for group and personal reflections. 

Who can co-create Meaningful PE experiences? 

Democratic educators and autonomous students are the co-creators of Meaningful PE experiences through open dialogue, discussion, and action. 

When I think of meaningful physical education I think of good teachers or qualified coaches who know what they are doing. I also think of competitiveness between the students or players, and everyone is involved in the activity that they are doing (Doug, Brainstorming Statements). 

Both teachers and students described common preferences for what they like to DO in PE as ‘working hard’ (#7); ‘being active’ (#11); ‘exercising’ (#17); ‘demonstrating sports-personship’ (#29); ‘improving my skills’ (#35); ‘trying my hardest (demonstrating effort)’ (#42); ‘playing sports’ (#38); ‘focusing on the activity’ (#13); ‘being challenged’ (#15); ‘participating in a variety of activities’ (#25); ‘practicing strategies & tactics’ (#22); ‘demonstrating athleticism’ (#28); ‘trying new activities’ (#6); ‘competition’ (#41); ‘being competitive’ (#36); ‘being outdoors’ (#12); and lastly, ‘winning’ (#3) (Figure 1 & Table 1).

Participants also described how they wanted to FEEL in PE as a combination of statements from all four clusters (figure 1): ‘being treated with respect’ (#1); ‘having fun’ (#26); ‘equality’ (#10); ‘being treated with kindness’ (#19); ‘being happy in class’ (#32); ‘having my thoughts and opinions heard’ (#34); ‘making positive memories’ (#27); ‘working hard’ (#7); ‘improving my skills’ (#35); ‘trying my hardest (demonstrating effort)’ (#42); ‘focusing on the activity’ (#13); ‘being challenged’ (#15); ‘including everyone in the activities’ (#18); ‘getting along with others’ (#8); ‘showing support for my classmates’ (#30); ‘everyone demonstrating teamwork’ (#5); ‘group participation’ (#39); ‘laughing with my classmates & teachers’ (#2); and ‘learning’ (#24). Furthermore, student participants acknowledged their personal responsibility for co-creating Meaningful PE experiences: “It is up to us to contribute, like by working hard and putting in the effort and stuff” (Mike, Group 1, Google Meet #4). 

Figure 1
Secondary Students’ Meaningful PE Clusters

Table 1 - Secondary Student Identified Meaningful PE Clusters

Custer 1: Kindness - Being treated with respect (1); having fun (26); equality (10); being treated with kindness (19); being happy in class (32); having my thoughts and opinions heard (34); doing activities that I love (40); practicing leadership (21); making positive memories (27) 

Cluster 2: Physical Activity - Working hard (7); being active (11); exercising (17); demonstrating sports-personship (29); improving my skills (35); trying my hardest (demonstrating effort) (42); playing sports (38); focusing on the activity (13); being challenged (15); participating in a variety of activities (25); practicing strategies & tactics (22); demonstrating athleticism (28); trying new activities (6); competition (41); being competitive (36); being outdoors (12); winning (3) 

Cluster 3: Fun - Including everyone in the activities (18); getting along with others (8); showing support for my classmates (30); everyone demonstrating teamwork (5); group participation (39); being with friends (9); working with others (23); laughing with my classmates & teachers (2); being with peers (4); getting to know people (43); making new friends (37) 

Cluster 4: Quality Education – following COVID-19 precautions (44); paying attention to the instructions (20); safety (33); being taught by quality teachers (14); having the proper equipment (31); learning (24); using technology in class (16) 

Note: Statements are listed in order of importance as per the participants rating data. The statement number follows in brackets. 


“Kindness includes being treated with respect, equality, and being treated with kindness; but, like, equality should have been the highest. Being treated equal makes everything better because if one person is being treated differently it, like, you think like, there’s something wrong with you or how you played the game” (Teegan, Group 2, Google Meet #4). 

Social interactions are critical considerations for Meaningful PE experiences (Beni et al, 2017).  The cluster that students rated as the most important for Meaningful PE experiences was kindness. “If you’re not having fun, you’re not going to be kind” (Doug, Group 3, Google Meet #4). Of interest, the fun cluster included only student-student relationships therefore highlighting the criticality of these relationships. 

The best way to make sure that fun and physical activity happens in PE is by making a personal connection with all of us and that makes everything better because you can have fun and feel comfortable around teachers who teach you. You also need to take the students thoughts and ideas into consideration when planning phys ed (Karlin, Group 2 Google Meet #4). 

Karlin’s quote is an accurate depiction of the overall expectations students described for teachers who are facilitating Meaningful PE experiences. The fourth cluster, quality education, was more closely tied to teacher controlled pedagogy (Table 1). However, clusters one and three, kindness & fun, provide physical educators with very specific examples of the Meaningful PE pedagogical principles of autonomy & inclusion such as: ‘being treated with respect’ (#1); ‘having my thoughts and opinions heard (#34); and ‘including everyone in the activities (#18). Richard added that “playing music, having more fun, listening to more student voices, and modeling kindness” (Group 1 Google Meet #4) are important actions PE teachers can take to co-create Meaningful PE experiences. 

Where do Meaningful PE Experiences Take Place? 

Meaningful PE experiences can take place in any physical education space and context; provided students and teachers collaborate to create an inclusive and autonomous setting. Students stressed the importance of honouring student voice & choice in activity locations and that having the proper equipment enables Meaningful PE experiences. Ultimately, Meaningful PE experiences are less about the physical location and more about the enduring feelings that PE experiences provide in the moment and in the future. 

How do we co-create Meaningful PE experiences?

Making time for both student and teacher reflection before, during and after PE lessons will encourage students in generating relevant suggestions that will continue to facilitate Meaningful PE experiences (Fletcher & Ní Chróinín, 2021). To encourage students to understand the difference between more or less Meaningful PE experiences, they will need to reflect on their past, present, and future involvement in PE and physical activity. Teachers also need to continue to reflect on their teaching practice and co-plan for Meaningful PE with their students. As a result students will likely respond with increased motivation to participate in PE classes. 

Possibilities for Co-Creating Meaningful PE Experiences

All in all, it is critical to consider the relationships between students, teachers, and the learning environment to plan for Meaningful PE experiences. 

John Dewey (1938) explained that “ideas are not fixed but formed and reformed through experience” (p. 8). Students, along with teachers and researchers, should be involved in collaborative and on-going reflection about Meaningful PE experiences. As well, we researchers ought to be continuously reflecting on how our research is serving students and teachers. Developing, implementing, and evaluating context specific experiences will ensure continued growth in the research of Meaningful PE. It would be my pleasure and honour to continue to engage in Meaningful PE research -- if I can provide Research as Service to your school community, please connect with me on Twitter, @Jodikuriger, or via email ( 

Final Words

It is important to take a moment to sincerely thank my supervisor, Doug Gleddie, for his endless encouragement and support. I would also like to acknowledge Stephanie Beni, Tim Fletcher, and Dierdre Ní Chróinín for their original Meaningful PE work that inspired this research project. In their review of the literature (Beni et al., 2017) six Meaningful PE features were originally identified: social interaction, fun, challenge, motor competence, personally relevant learning, and delight. These features greatly influenced my initial understanding of Meaningful PE. 

When I began researching Meaningful PE, I was hoping to create a document that teachers could use in their planning and implementation of physical education. Instead, I have come to realize it is not documents or resources that will bring Meaningful PE to students. It is the relationships between learners and educators that will create Meaningful PE experiences


Beni, S., Fletcher, T., & Ní Chróinín, D. (2017). Meaningful experiences in physical 

education and youth sport: A review of the literature, Quest, 69:3, 291 - 312.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education (Vol. 1938). The Macmillan Co.

Fletcher, T., & Ní Chróinín, D. (2021). Pedagogical principles that support the 

prioritisation of meaningful experiences in physical education: conceptual and 

practical considerations. Physical education and sport pedagogy.

Fletcher, T., Ní Chróinín, D., Gleddie, D., & Beni, S. (2021). Meaningful physical 

education: An approach for teaching and learning. Routledge

Harding-Kuriger, J. (2021). Conceptualizing meaningful physical education: A secondary 

school study. [unpublished Doctoral dissertation, University of Alberta].