Free-range PE

When I was at primary school, the thing we did – over and over again – was Rounders. Rounders was a game of standing around waiting for your turn to do something. When on the batting team, once eventually you had got to the front of the queue, you had the whole class watch you attempt to hit the ball. Those not confident wouldn’t even try, and instead just throw the bat to the floor and run for first base.

Well-structured games like Rounders are popular with teachers for a variety of reasons: They can be controlled easily; they take no planning and very little equipment; one game can take up the whole lesson; and there is very little movement, so very little chance of injury through collision. However, we do a disservice to the children if these reasons dictate our choice of activity. The children need brave teachers who allow children to have choice and ownership of their own activities and embrace the chaos of games where everyone can all move at once.

In order for the skills learnt in PE to be meaningful beyond the lesson, the activities used need to contain choice, realism and relevance. Standing on a cone throwing and catching a ball may help improve techniques, but will do nothing to help children learn when and where to use these skills. Where possible, techniques can be learnt within game-contexts which include some element of decision-making. Miniaturised and modified versions of larger games are a good way to get lots of involvement per child while also combining technique and skill practice. Even young children should be given elements of choice and responsibility (for example, which size ball to use) and expected to solve a variety of problems (for example, finding their own partner to work with, taking care of their own equipment and setting up their own areas).

PE is a curriculum subject with expectations of teaching and learning such as we have in a mathematics lesson. We must not forget the E in PE! The subject cannot therefore be Play in its truest sense, however we can make it playful. When battling for the right balance of instruction and liberty, it may be helpful for teachers to consider providing the children with ‘Freedom within a Framework’ – the ‘framework’ being the teacher’s non-negotiable conditions which ensure specific learning is explored, and the ‘freedom’ being the children’s choice and responsibility to invent and explore within that framework.

In 'A Year of Primary PE', I provide the framework for teachers to use in order to fulfil national curriculum aims and outcomes. I also suggest various ways of designing and delivering activities and lessons so that children can investigate and interact with the game on their own terms, 100% engaged, with no queues nor any pressure to perform. My version of Noodle Rounders for example, is small-sided, with continued activity, and freedom for children to amend equipment. Rather than a focus on performing or winning the game, the aim of the activity is linked to the PE national curriculum purpose of embedding kindness and respect. It is so much better than the PE I was served up when I was at school!

A framework which provides freedom and choice

A Year of Primary PE: 110 games  to support whole-child development from September to July

A must-have for every primary school


This book is a must-have for every primary school. Mark’s passion for PE, grounded in experience, shines through and he offers an alternative approach that focuses on the holistic development of each learner, as well as developing physical skills. Every activity is carefully planned, tried and tested, engaging and purposeful.

Further reading

  • 'Inquiry, Agency, Autonomy and Leadership', Andy Vasili's blog (link)