Freedom to Explore and Create in PE


I recently read Free to Learn by American Psychologist, Peter Gray.  Dr. Gray explains that “in order to foster children who will thrive in today’s constantly changing world, we must entrust them to steer their own learning and development.”  He states that “free play is the primary means by which children learn to control their lives, solve problems, get along with peers, and become emotionally resilient.”

To help solidify his argument that children have a high capacity for self-education through curiosity and play, Dr. Gray cites Sugata Mitra’s experiment in India back in 1999.  In this experiment, Mitra installed a computer in the middle of one of the poorest slums in New Delhi, where most children were unschooled, illiterate, and had never seen a computer.  He turned on the computer and told the nearby kids they could play with it.  Over a course of three months, without any adult input, more than 300 kids became computer literate.  Mitra repeated the experiment 100 times in different areas of India with similar results.  Mitra defined computer literacy as follows:

  • use of Windows operation functions (click, drag, open, resize, navigation, etc.)
  • draw and paint with the preloaded program
  • load and save files
  • play games and run educational programs
  • browse and surf the Internet if a connection was available
  • set up email accounts
  • chat on the Internet
  • simple troubleshooting

As a physical education teacher, it made me realize that I sometimes underestimate the power of student learning.  Often I spend unnecessary amounts of time explaining directions and giving detailed examples of activities and challenges.

For example, at the end of each marking period, my team and I like to set up stations around the gym for our pre-kindergarten-2nd Grade students.  Stations include fitness, manipulatives, throwing and catching, striking, scooters, etc.   Yesterday, for the first time, I divided the students up into groups of three and sent them to each of the seven stations.  Instead of explaining each station in detail, I simply instructed the groups to stay in their general area, be safe and work together.   I was astonished by the cooperation and creativity.  As expected, there were a few disagreements, however, this is where I challenged the students to problem solve on their own.  Students were creating games and challenges that I could have never imagined through THEIR interpretation.

We recently listed a bunch of partner exercises on our whiteboard.  In a given amount of time, partners had to complete the list of five partner exercises as many times as possible.  The students and I gave detailed examples of how to perform each exercise with their partner. I now realize this limited their creativity and ability to freely explore movement.  It also took away a huge cooperative component in problem solving and communication.

For our next class, we offered the same workout.  However, this time we didn’t include examples and explanations.  The results were astonishing! We witnessed communication, experimentation, and problem-solving. I even learned there are other, and sometimes more effective ways to do each of the partner exercises.

As an educator who is constantly seeking professional development, I learned a huge lesson from reading Peter Gray’s book, Free to Learn.  I need to give children more freedom to explore and create throughout our curriculum. I learned that students often learn best without me over explaining a game or a challenge.  I learned that children are often the ones teaching me, as they work together to invent, explore, and create.  Finally, I learned the importance of free play at school and at home, and its benefits on our children.  Children who are granted the freedom to play are more passionate about learning.  They enhance social skills and means to resolve a conflict.  They become more emotionally resilient.

Along with PE teachers, ALL teachers and administrators should consider giving students more freedom to explore and play.  Taking away recess to increase class time is such a backward way of thinking, yet still exists.  Parents could possibly encourage less structured sports and activities, and allow their children more time to simply go out and play.  After all, play is a child’s work!

“In a healthy human being, the thirst for knowledge is never quenched.” -Peter Gray

Gray, Peter. Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-reliant, and Better Students for Life. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

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7 Simple Instant Activities for PE


Be sure to check out (click for link) 10 More Instant Activities for PE after reading this post!

Instant activities are designed to actively engage students the moment they walk through the gymnasium doors.  Usually posted on a whiteboard or monitor, instant activities involve every student with very little teacher involvement.  They’re typically high energy, but can also take on a cooperative component.  Typically lasting about 5 minutes, instant activities are an effective way to stimulate student learning prior to the day’s lesson.  Below are a few instant activities your students might enjoy.

Plank, Paper, Scissors, Shoot! 

Plank, Paper, Scissors, Shoot is based on a game called Head Honcho by JD Hughes.  To begin, students pair up at the first of 5 levels.  I use the lines on my gym floor to divide each level.  You can also use spots or cones.  When the music begins, each pair plays rock, paper, scissors while holding a PLANK position.  The winner of the challenge advances forward to the second level, while the loser remains at the first level.  Students quickly find another challenger within the same level.   Once a student reaches, then wins at the fifth and final level, he receives a winning ticket.   He returns to the first level to repeat the process.  I’m sure your students will enjoy working on their core strength while playing this fast-paced game!


Hula Hoop Fitness Timer

This is another instant activity that works well for all ages.  As students enter the gym they each pick up a hula hoop and find personal space.  Next, they spin their hoop on the floor, then perform an exercise of their choice until the hoop completely stops spinning.  Once the hoop falls to the floor, they choose a different exercise and repeat the process.  You can also specify the types of exercises wherever you post the instant activities (aerobic, lower body, etc).

The Race to 3

I love using my old coffee cans for a variety of games.  One of my favorite “coffee can” games is the Race to 3.  Before the students arrive I set up the cans throughout the gym, each with two hollow plastic balls.  When students enter the gym, they immediately pair up and go to a coffee can.  The object of the game is to be the first to bounce a ball into the can three times.  Once a match is over, each player MUST shake hands and say, “good game.”  The winner of the game stays and raises his hand while the loser travels to find another person to challenge who is seated with their hand up.  I use this instant activity as a way to reinforce SPORTSMANSHIP with my students.  It also happens to be an all-time favorite among students.

Jump Rope

Good old-fashioned jump rope is one of THE best instant activities.  It gives students an opportunity to work on their coordination, timing, and creativity while getting a significant workout!  Long rope challenges in groups of three or four are also a fun way to increase hearts rates while enhancing teamwork and cooperation.

Build and Take Shelter

Hula Hoops are one of my favorite pieces of equipment for PE.  Build and Take Shelter is another reason why.  This instant activity can be modified for any grade level.  Prior to PE class, I space out several groups of six hula hoops.  I will also set up one hula hoop sphere in the center of the gym as a visual. Upon entering the gym, students are instructed to find a group of three, then Build and Take Shelter.  Their mission is to work together to build a sphere.  Once the sphere is completed, each student must climb through without knocking it over.  Once each player has crawled through successfully, they repeat the process.  Students also have the option to try and fit each member in the sphere at one time.  This makes for a great photo!

For older students, you can make this challenge more competitive.  Before class, the teacher can spread out spots throughout the gym.  Each group must Build and Take Shelter on as many spots as possible in five minutes.


As teachers, we all want to increase students’ ability to concentrate, enhance hand-eye coordination, and build self-confidence. Juggling can benefit all three.  Juggling is an awesome instant activity; after you’ve taught the basics in prior classes.  We teach juggling from kindergarten – 6th Grade.  With our students we begin with scarves and later progress to bean bags, juggle bugs, and sometimes juggling pins.   You’ll be shocked at how quickly your students will pick up this skill with a little practice and determination.  Juggling is another one of our students’ favorite instant activities.

Partner AMRAP (As Many Rounds as Possible)

Finally, anything fitness related makes an outstanding instant activity.  Popular with our program is a partner AMRAP.  As students enter the gym, they read the whiteboard and get to work. Partner AMRAPs can include a variety of exercises and skills relating to your present unit. Check out one of my previous posts called Top 5 Motivating Fitness Routines to see a video of a basketball AMRAP.

Although these are seven of MY favorite instant activities, there are certainly hundreds of more that are equally effective.  Please share some of your ideas!

Be sure to check out  (click for link) 10 More Instant Activities for PE after reading this post!

If you enjoyed this post, consider following my blog to receive future posts.

Follow me on Twitter:

Search #trinitype to see what my amazing PE team is doing with their classes.

Check out my Facebook group called Keeping Kids in Motion!

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Power of Music – 5 Songs of Nostalgia




The above picture sits on my desk at school.  It’s a picture of me, in my first year teaching, at a small school in Washington, DC back in 1995.  I recently caught myself staring at the picture reminiscing on “the good ‘ole days.”  In the background of my thoughts, the song, Waterfalls by TLC was playing.  The reason – Yolanda, Chelsea, and Bianca, pictured above, used to sing this song day in and day out while rehearsing a choreographed dance routine.  Each day at recess and every day during our after-school program you could witness the young versions of Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes dancing and singing their song.  I specifically remember this picture being taken.  I was honored when they asked me to be a background dancer for their group (I tried out to sing, but Yolanda said my voice was too manly).  With Waterfalls softly playing from a small boom box, we just finished our number when one of my colleagues snapped a picture of us in our finishing pose.

For me, music is extremely powerful.  It can set my mood based on its melody and/or lyrics.  It used to “fire me up” before a big game.  Every night as a young teen, I’d turn on my radio alarm clock to listen to K104 out of Poughkeepsie, NY to help put me to sleep.  I use it professionally to motivate my students in PE.  Every once in a while I’ll hear a song on the radio that will not only remind me of something but will take me back to a time in my life, much like the above example.  It starts with this strange “fuzzy” feeling in my stomach.  Then, in a flash, I’m transported back in time to a very specific, usually minor event.  It’s strange to me how only certain songs have this effect every time I hear them.

Here are a few more of the songs that have this magical power over me, with a vivid description of a time and place I heard the song.

Although Dream Weaver, by one of the original “one-hit wonders” Gary Wright, was released in 1972, the song takes me back to the summer of 1978.  In the back of my parents’ 1978 Buick Opel, we were driving to Kingston, NY on our weekly shopping excursion.

1978 Buick Opel

As my dad pulled into a parking deck, and Dream Weaver was fading into the next song, I reached back for my crayons which were placed, by me, in the back window.  Uh oh, how do I tell my dad there was a liquid rainbow dripping down the vinyl interior of his car?  Not good!

The year is 1981.  My little league team just finished winning our league championship.  To celebrate my parents took us to the Stissing House, an Italian restaurant, in my small hometown of Pine Plains, NY.  My brother and I were obsessed with the full-sized jukebox that was loaded with songs from every genre.  Our usual play was Mack the Knife by Bobby Darin.  However, this night we would play It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me by Billy Joel.  I still love that song and I miss “pizza nights” at Stissing House with my family.

November 1984.  I was home from school, battling seasonal asthma.  I was resting on the couch trying to watch a riveting episode of the Phil Donahue show when I heard two dreaded sounds.  The first was the Electrolux vacuum cleaner being dragged into the kitchen followed by the crackling of our Panasonic record player speakers.  My viewing pleasure was about to be rivaled by my mom vacuuming while blaring Barry Manilow’s Copacabana.  Why do I remember that?

December 1986.  I just wasn’t cool in high school.  I was respected for my athleticism but definitely not cool.  Case and point, I’d go to the free library at night to do homework.  “Homework would inevitably lead me to the library’s only computer to play Breakout.


On one such occasion, my friend Tommy D entered the library with a Sony Walkman maxed out.  As I was feverishly working the left and right arrows on the keyboard, I heard him much before I saw him.  The usual silence of the library was held hostage to Mike D, MCA, and Kind Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys.

Without pulling the orange foam from his ears and neglecting to turn the volume down, Tommy D, in an awkwardly loud tone said, “You’ve got to hear this new group…”  I remember him holding up the tape cover for License to Ill.  Turns out, I loved it!

January 1993 – Enter Grunge.  I arrived in Washington, DC to begin my final two years of college at the George Washington University.  After my parents dropped me off, I headed up to my dorm for the first time.  I was a nervous wreck.  My new roommates weren’t back from their winter break yet and I needed something to settle my nerves.  Along the back wall, there was a small Emerson stereo system.  Sitting on top was the Nevermind CD by Nirvana.  I slipped in the CD, sat on the end of a bed, closed my eyes, and began listening to Smells Like Teen Spirt.  Nothing like a good dose of Nirvana to help settle my nerves and a slight case of homesickness.  Halfway through the song, I opened my eyes to see another student with long, shaggy, red hair standing in the doorway holding a red electric guitar.  The music drew him to my room like ants to sugar.  “Is that Nirvana?”, he said.  Just like that, I made my first friend in college through music.

I could go on and on with several other songs from several different genres. Instead, I’ll save them for a potential “part 2” in the future.

Perhaps you can relate to the “fuzzy” feeling I get when I hear certain songs.  Do you feel a sense of nostalgia when listening to music from the past?  For me, I never know when that feeling, that sense of comfort, that rush of emotions will strike.  Hopefully, it will strike me often and soon!

I wonder if Chelsea, Bianca, and Yolanda remember our time together as the supergroup TLC!  Reunion tour?

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Search #trinitype to see what my amazing PE team is doing with their classes.

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