Creating fabulous core memories

Written by Ronnie Heath, Managing Director of Create Development

Dad photo

How refreshingly simple; create fabulous core memories of physical activities, encourage rich ‘thought bubbles’ and build a vast and exciting island of positive physical activity experiences. Disney’s ‘Inside Out’ was of course delightfully cheesy but it highlights the root of the challenge we face when creating a positive relationship with physical activity for life.

So many 7 year olds already describe themselves as ‘non-sporty’, a term which means just not suited to or just doesn’t enjoy PE or Sport. We culturally allow them to accept the fixed mind-set that it’s nobody’s fault, she is just born that way. At 4 years old she loves physical activity, but by 11 Jasmine has established a firm set of values of beliefs and she has already decided that this is not where she belongs. Her secondary school experience is likely to confirm her hypothesis every day; that by not engaging she can reduce the pain and humiliation.

“At 4 years old she loves physical activity, by 11 Jasmine has already decided that this is not where she belongs.”

‘This Girl Can’ is a great campaign for adult women, but how about a real PE programme that makes every young girl and boy believe they can and always will?

Too often, those who describe themselves as ‘thought leaders’, whilst well meaning, provide only an academic framework that fails to engage with the very audience they would like to lead. For generations, it is the 30% who ‘get PE & sport’ who repeatedly fail the 70%. We want people to join the real PE movement that ‘gets’ and understands the majority rather than try and force them to try and ‘get’ our version of physical education. We don’t give them a reason to follow.

“How about a real PE programme that makes every young girl and boy believe they can and always will?” 

Of course we should stretch and support the most able. Of course we should provide opportunity for challenge at all levels but that has to start with empathy and understanding of all children. The amazing thing is, once your focus switches from teaching PE to developing Jasmine, it really does get much easier.

Some things are simply much more important than others. We have spoken at length, quite rightly, that early progress in the A, B, Cs of agility, balance and coordination provide an essential platform for future success. However, it is self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci , 2000) that provides the radical common sense. It suggests that autonomy and belonging need to be added to that competence to provide an alternative essential A, B, C base for our core memories. Our responsibility is to provide the learning nutrition that shifts ownership and control, create an environment that gives them a real sense of belonging and a framework of progressive personalised challenges that they can explore and adapt.

“The amazing thing is, once your focus switches from teaching PE to developing Jasmine it really does get much easier.”

Let’s invest where we can make the biggest difference, in the early years with a focus on the things that are most important. Let’s support, schools, families and communities to transform the culture of physical activity, a culture with an inclusive vision of hope and possibility. We can do that if we focus on the child first, helping them develop essential behaviours, physical literacy, thinking and emotional skills. We will need to develop approaches and habits that make them feel fantastic about themselves and about physical activity, whether that is through unstructured play, PE or Sport.

We can as Gove suggests make them run around the field as a method of discipline, associating exercise with punishment, or we can strive to create core memories of healing not humiliation, joyfulness of playing with others, and a deep pleasure of immersing themselves in an exciting struggle personalised and chosen by them. It is these experiences that develop a long-lasting, totally different calibration and relationship with physical activity.

“It is these experiences that develop a long-lasting, totally different calibration and relationship with physical activity.”

It’s easy to assume it can only be specialist PE teachers or coaches that that can deliver our vision. Have specialists in secondary schools, my own colleagues and I, succeeded? Generalist primary teachers understand learning and know their children better than anyone. Primary teachers already possess the majority of the key skills required and demonstrate them in other subjects. Parents, given support, are motivated to give their children the best opportunities and chances. The time has come to extend our delivery communities, very deliberately, to involve some that have had the poorest experiences. Let’s embrace their empathy, for surely they are more qualified than most to truly understand the ones we most need to reach out to.

“Generalist primary teachers understand learning and know their children better than anyone.”

It’s happening now, it’s real, not consistently and not everywhere, but hundreds of thousands of children are building a rich and diverse physical activity island. It’s ridiculously simple, free from the distractions and agenda of specific sports.

The thing that drives us all at Create and the thousands joining the movement is that we believe one day real PE, will be just seen as the normal PE. We can strive for a day when children take it for granted that whether at school, home or in their communities, wherever physical activity takes place, they will feel they belong.