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How to pitch it right

A traditional approach to PE can alienate some children. Crispin Andrews looks at more inclusive techniques

Denise Knibbs has taught PE at Alfriston Special School in Buckinghamshire for 10 years. At this all-girls upper school, she works with children with a range of impairments right through to severe learning difficulties such as autism and Down syndrome. She has no doubt that in order to provide a high-quality experience for these young people, PE lessons must be adapted.

"Give them a traditional diet of competition, team games and performance-related expectations and our children would wilt, back out of situations and eventually become disaffected with physical activity," she says. "But if lessons are pitched right, they can get just as much out of PE and sport as anyone else."

A key first step is preparation. Many children come to Alfriston full of negative experiences and attitudes. They may lack natural co-ordination, and they may associate PE with mental trauma and even fear, says Denise.

"Many girls come to the school feeling despondent about PE. Having always been the poor relation in mainstream education and never having been chosen for the school team, they simply think they can't do it and feel bad about themselves because of this. Our first job is to persuade them that they can achieve, make progress at their own level and that PE and sport can be enjoyable."

A sense of belonging is facilitated by introducing basic skills in a non-threatening way and by making activities simple and fun. Students are given time to develop at their own speed and technique. Practising alone, in pairs or in very small groups, removes the pressure of having their performance related to group outcome. If they make a mistake no one will laugh, moan because they are letting the team down or let out a condescending sigh.

It is equally crucial that the introductory warm-ups engage the children as well as provide a physical and mental "get-ready". A simple chasing game such as Stuck in the Mud is ideal. It is relevant preparation for a games lesson on dodging and evasion, it ensures all children are moving all the time, and encourages each to be aware of what others are doing. And the children love it - especially if the teacher gets involved.

Denise is able to build on this, introducing skills visually, one at a time. "Many children find sequencing difficult. Give them a series of instructions and they may only remember the first or the last. Showing them three or four ways to evade an opponent simultaneously would be of less value than showing the first - practising it and then moving on to the next. When using verbal explanations, cognitive difficulties can be a barrier to understanding. Show them something, especially with humour, and you have a captive audience."

After a few weeks, the students move into game situations. These are not win-at-all-costs, outcome-oriented affairs. Their purpose is to facilitate enjoyment and progression for all. One of the techniques used is zoning: children play mixed-ability, small-side versions of invasion games like netball, football and hockey; but the pitch is marked into separate zones, within which children of similar abilities compete against each other.

Denise explains how this allows all children to achieve success and enjoy the activity while being involved in the same game: "In one class we have two children whose physical difficulties make games like netball far more difficult than for the other members of the group. In our six-a-side adapted version, these two would be on opposite sides in the middle zone.

They would be constantly involved, as all attacks have to go through the middle zone, yet they wouldn't have to worry about being out-played by more mobile opponents.

"We might introduce a sub-zone - both youngsters would receive the pass in their own sub-zone, nearest to the goal they were defending, giving them time to compose themselves before having to confront their opponent. In the central zone, the game could even be played with a softer ball or players permitted to move with the ball in their hands. In the other zones, more able children compete against each other in ways appropriate to their abilities."

Traditionalists may scoff that this is not netball. But incorporating strategies such as these into mainstream teaching, can make PE enjoyable and relevant for all children.

* TOPs provides ideas for differentiating PE, and a TOP sports ability pack focuses on the needs of young disabled people. Contact your LEA, school sport partnership or the Youth Sport Trust.

Tel: 01509 226 600.

Tel: 020 8996 3610

* The English Federation of Disability Sport has information about training and research

* Success for All (CD-Rom from the DfES ) features case studies on inclusive practice.

Tel: 0870 600 5522 Email:

Crispin Andrews is the author of Meeting Special Needs in PE and Sport (Pounds 25) which is published in late April by David Fulton

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