Now we're learning the right moves

19th September 2003 at 01:00
A developmental programme in East Lothian is showing the way forward for teaching basic physical education. Karen Shead reports

Physical education is often thought of as just another class at school.

"But it is more than that. It is something that goes on for life," says Mike Jess, a University of Edinburgh senior lecturer in PE.

For 15 years he has been researching motor skills education for young children. Development work with children and trainers on his Basic Moves project began in 2001 as the result of a partnership between the university and SportScotland's Active Primary School programme. Now the project, the first of its kind in the UK, is being piloted across Scotland.

"It sets out to help all pre-school and primary school children develop the basic movements that will enable them to become competent, confident movers who enjoy physical activity," Mr Jess explains. "By developing these basic movements, children are more likely to be 'movement literate', which means that as they move through adult life they will be more able to participate in a wide range of physical activities."

For many years, the structure of primary PE classes has been the same: an activity, such as gym, dance or games, is taught over a block of time, perhaps six weeks, and then the class moves on. With a scheme that focuses children on one activity at a time, they can forget what they have learned before or may not reach a certain level of maturity in one of the movements.

"For more than 80 years, the thinking has been that children reach this stage of maturity naturally. This is wrong," says Mr Jess.

"It can be reached when a child is about seven or eight," says Kay Dewar, lecturer in primary physical education, "but many children are not reaching this level by that age. For example, though children learn to run, they may not move in the correct way."

Basic Moves is described as the foundation for lifelong physical activity.

Children can be taught movement skills from age one up to 11 or 12 and the project team believes development cannot be left to chance. Although the initial focus of Basic Moves is on infants, future programmes are planned for the pre-school, late primary and early secondary years.

A pilot was launched in East Lothian in January. The progress of six classes is being compared against four which are not receiving the training. Longniddry Primary is one of the schools involved.

Watching the P2 class moving, it is easy to see how it works. At times, the class works together as a whole to focus on specific movements and, at others, the pupils split into small groups or practice stations - areas of equipment - each focusing on one of three basic skills: travelling, object control or balance control.

In one corner, children are weaving in and out of cones, galloping or skipping down the line. (This comes under the category of travelling.) In another area, children are throwing shuttlecocks to each other over a net, while elsewhere others are rolling a small ball down an alley that is marked out. (Both groups are practising object control.) Another group is using a series of hoops and benches which allows them to practise their balance control.

The idea of learning movement skills is spreading, with extra-curricular and community-based classes being set up. Last week, classes started at Edinburgh's Meadowbank Stadium. The aim is to make an integrated programme of activities accessible to all children. As well as encouraging children to be active generally, it ensures they achieve a level of competence in many skills rather than focusing on one.

"As they move through life, they will be able to participate in a range of activities. This is crucial as most people choose - or need - to change activities at different stages in their lives," says Mr Jess. "Evidence shows that if a person only does one activity, they are more likely to give it up."

June Murray, who is one of 30 SportScotland active primary co-ordinators involved in the project, works with Longniddry Primary.

"The thing with Basic Moves is that it isn't new; we have all been doing bits of it before," she says. "But Basic Moves comprises all of the moves in one session."

Even now, those involved in the Basic Moves project are seeing the benefits. "It makes a great difference to the children, not only in their skill levels but also in their understanding of that skill. It's making them more aware of their ability to move," says Ms Murray.

In addition to the active primary co-ordinators who are helping to develop the programme, primary PE specialists are being trained so that they can deliver the sessions and support the teachers teaching Basic Moves.

"The big plus for us," says Longniddry Primary headteacher Ann McLanachan, "has been the ease with which the class teachers have taken on the programme."

P2 class teacher Helen Gillanders is confident in the delivery of the Basic Moves class. "It's nice for the teacher as it is structured and we have got time to look at each child and see how we can help them improve," she says.

"I've seen changes in the children's movement. I've seen progress being made week after week. The children love it and what they get is a strong grounding in how to do all the moves.

Basic Moves, she says, gives the children the "best start", adding: "Before this, I don't think we were doing them any favours."

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