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A critical encounter with the nature of games

Focus key competencies: Using language, symbols, and texts, relating to others/managing self

Learning area context: Health and physical education


Most students in this year 5 and 6 class play a Saturday sport associated either with a school team or a local sports club. The teacher drew on these experiences to design a series of lessons that gave students critical insights into the nature of games, and the importance of clear and fair communication when they are being played. First she challenged the class, in small groups, to create, play, and teach other class members games that could be used as lunchtime activities. They were specifically asked to select three different skill elements from across the range of sports that they played (typically soccer, rugby, netball, or basketball).

The students identified a range of physical skills they could use to create their new game, including passing, dribbling, kicking, dodging. They could also introduce new equipment into their game, for example, gear that might typically be used for other activities. One example was using a hockey stick in a non-traditional way. They spent time combining their chosen elements into their new game, and they were then given time to practise and refine this game over a series of lessons. During this time the students continued to develop the game itself and also the rules for playing. These needed to be sufficiently specific that someone who had never played the game before could learn how to play.

As part of the game development, the students were asked to consider how the game was to be refereed. To assist them to develop an understanding of the challenges they might face when doing this, the teacher showed the class clips of professional games of rugby, soccer, netball, and basketball and directed the students to observe the actions, and language used by the referees. She also cued the students to notice how the size of the playing area created communication challenges for the referee, and how the referee used symbols such as hand signals to ensure players knew what they were being directed to do or not do. The students made notes about both the verbal and non-verbal communication of each referee they observed. They were then asked to reflect on the following question in their groups: “How does a referee let a team know what they need to do or stop doing?” The class then discussed how these rules may have come about within each of the sports they observed. They came to realise that, over time, both the rules by which the game is played, and the way a game is refereed, can change to reflect new technology, player skill, and safety concerns.

Next the students identified five symbols used by referees from each of the focus sporting codes. They analysed what these five symbols meant in the functioning of the game. In groups, they chose one of the sports they had viewed and presented the symbols that the referee used with an explanation of the purpose of each, and how players were required to respond when they saw or heard each symbol being used. Students presented these findings by making posters that showed each action or word used with the accompanying explanation. They shared these posters with the class.

Students were then asked to choose between three and five verbal or non-verbal commands to include in their own games. When these had been agreed they took turns at being the referee for their game. This allowed them to directly experience the success or otherwise of using the symbols and language they had identified. They were able to make changes or alter the symbols or language used where necessary. Among other things, the students discovered that:

  • Ÿsome refereeing decisions are very specific to a sporting moment and do not transfer easily into other sports
  • it is not easy to be a referee. No matter how often they used some of the language and symbols decided upon as a group, students discovered they were not always acted on by the players.

Reciprocal relationships between the subject and the key competencies

In physical education settings, students are provided with opportunities to learn in, through, and about movement, via a range of physical experiences that include sport, games, and recreational activities. Sports studies is one of the seven key areas of learning within the health and physical education learning area. Students develop their understanding of all elements related to sport:

  • learning how to play a sport
  • concepts related to sports competition (for example, winning and losing)
  • roles and responsibilities within a sports team
  • managing team events
  • the challenging nature of refereeing.

In this story year 5 and 6 students were provoked to think creatively as they designed a new game, with their current sporting experiences as a beginning point. They expanded their competencies in using language, symbols, and texts as they thought critically about the role that language and symbols play in helping the referee keep the game fair and safe for the players.

Students then developed their competencies relating to others and managing self as they designed a fair and clear set of refereeing/communication processes for their own game and practiced putting these into effect as the game was played, and refined them as necessary. They came to see the challenges of the referee’s role through new eyes and will hopefully take a newfound respect for this role forward into their own sports participation.

Reflections on effective pedagogy

Students were challenged to think critically about the nature of games and all the elements that go into making them fair and enjoyable for everyone to play.

This unit built rich connections between:

  • Ÿstudents’ prior experiences in playing a range of sports and new game possibilities
  • Ÿfamiliar playing/refereeing contexts and the communication role played by a range of language, symbols, and texts.

The learning fostered initiative when students took ownership of the design and implementation of their own games. These games changed over time to reflect the students’ interests, friendships, and understandings of rules.

Discussion starters: Making the familiar strange

In this story, students access their own funds of knowledge and experiences of playing various sports but these are turned back-to-front to help them transcend their everyday experiences and look in on games from a different perspective. How important is it to “make the familiar strange” when aspects of relating to others are in our sights? (You could also discuss this same question in relation to developing competencies in managing self, which in this context is the “other face” of the same coin.)

How does the teacher encourage students to look more critically at familiar aspects of using language, symbols, and texts in the context of strategies used to control games? Could insights developed in this context be transferred to other learning areas? (Multi-modal communication is one possibility you could consider.)

How does making the familiar strange in this physical activity context compare and contrast with the teacher's purposes in the story Engaging with historical significance by creating sound walks?

Published on: 15 Apr 2014