Tuesday, 4 January 2022

Personal Relevance in Elementary Years

Submitted by: Ty Riddick, HPEC Treasurer

The positive impact of personally relevant learning on student motivation is not new. Students desire an emotional connection to their learning and in its absence, are unlikely to remain engaged and put forth their best effort (Bernard, 2010).

A more difficult question is how do we make Physical Education relevant to elementary aged students? Sport philosopher Scott Kretchmar (2008) outlined concerns that learning outcomes in Elementary Physical Education (ESPE) were becoming too utilitarian in purpose. In an effort to do our part in preventing childhood obesity, lessons are focused on having students be as active as possible, get their heart rates high and in some contexts monitor step counts so students may learn about the importance of cardiovascular health and a healthy lifestyle. However, Kretchmar (2008) suggests that while students are likely able to understand that movement is beneficial to health, they are not willing to sacrifice present enjoyment and view the risks of the future as simply too far off to be meaningful.     

When I first began teaching a decade ago, many of my learning goals were focused on the transferability of skills. The majority of each lesson was devoted to skill development as an essential foundation of more formalized sport activities. I wanted students to understand that by first acquiring these foundational and transferable skills, that they will be able to participate in a wider variety of sports in the future. However, while there is little debate on whether fundamental skills are transferable or not, we also know that sport is so much more than just a collection of skills. This decontextualized and skill-focused environment is not seen as meaningful or motivating to students and is unlikely to produce the intended outcomes of participation outside of the classroom (Tinning, 2010).

In my previous teaching as well as the health-oriented environments, movement is seen as useful or as something we should do, but how do these lessons connect to students' lives as they currently are?

Below are three examples of how I’ve attempted to facilitate more personally relevant learning for my students. These snapshots of my teaching shouldn’t imply that these are the best or only ways to help students find relevance in their learning. The decisions within these units and their outcomes were made with respect to the time, facilities, resources etc. we have available and of course with our students in mind.

Unit: Who We Are in the Outdoors (Grade 3-6)

Big Idea: Reflecting on our experiences can affect the relationship we feel to movement in the outdoors.

Description: In this unit we first sampled different ways we could engage with the trails near our campus. We walked, we ran and explored activities such as a scavenger hunt. At the end of these initial lessons, we reflected on what we liked and disliked about each activity as well as what we may find meaningful about them. As we progressed through the unit, students used the whiteboard (shown below) to indicate 1) which trail they were going on 2) whether they were going to walk, run or search and 3) what was their intention; to be social, challenge themselves, for pleasure or to explore.

Unit: Throwing & Catching (Grade 1-2)

Big Idea: Challenging myself is essential to my growth as an individual.

Description: In this unit, students explored the concept of ‘just-right’ challenge and how those can help us grow as individuals. Students began by rotating through various throwing target games. At the end of the lessons students used numbered stickers to indicate which one was the most challenging and least challenging. Later we used the Goldilocks’ analogy to understand what 'just-right' meant. A challenge that wasn’t too hard or too easy but required some persistence to eventually be successful. As we progressed, students learned to modify throwing tasks to find their zone of 'just-right' challenge. At the end of the unit, they created their own ‘just-right’ throwing & catching activity and taught it to another classmate. 


Unit: Badminton (Grade 3-6)

Big Idea: By improving our skills we are empowered to engage in activities in ways that are meaningful to us.

Description: After a few initial lessons, students began completing a road map to improvement by first selecting an area of growth (i.e. serving or more consistent contact). It was important that their goal served the purpose for which they wished to engage in badminton. Some students' goals were for the purpose of winning more points so they could be more successful during competition. Other students' goals would help them engage in badminton socially, where the object of the game was to maintain a rally as long as possible or play recreationally where points are won but no score is kept. As students progressed towards their goal, they were grouped with students who found similar things meaningful about badminton. Students who wished to be social were allowed to be and students who wanted to be competitive participated in either doubles or singles tournaments.  


Bernard, S. (2010, December 1). Science shows making lessons relevant really matters. Edutopia.                https://www.edutopia.org/neuroscience-brain-based-learning-relevance-improves-engagement

Kretchmar, R. S. (2008). The increasing utility of elementary school physical education:
            A mixed blessing and unique challenge. The Elementary School Journal, 108(3), 161–170.

Tinning, R. (2010). Pedagogy and Human Movement: Theory, Practice, Research. New York,

            NY: Routledge.