Instant Activities - Good or Bad?
I got involved in a Twitter discussion yesterday over instant activity resources that I love to create for folks. The main gist was about whether instant activities should be a part of physical education classes, and it inspired a researcher to blog about it, so I wanted to respond. It gave me reason to pause as it wasn’t a topic I’ve had anyone question before. Does this also apply to Minute-To-Win-It challenges?
Let’s start by acknowledging that, without a doubt, we need research to help move our profession forward, and reflection is important for my own practice and pedagogy. That said, I feel like academics who are not in the trenches (or used to be years ago) sometimes forget that there can be a disconnect between research or textbook methodology and the actual art of teaching young children. Getting students to engage is physical activity can be challenging, and inspiring them to participate can be quite an artform in and of itself. Instant activities have always helped me bridge the gap, giving students a fun way to acclimate into moving after a week of sitting on a couch playing video games, especially if you’re like the many P.E. teachers who only see their students once a week (even twice).
Instant activities also provide another much-needed service. Many of us teach back to back classes, with grade levels changes each time, requiring adjustment of our equipment (unless you are someone who teachers 1st grade the same lesson as the 4th grade coming in right after them, but that’s a whole other conversation). Instant activities allow us some breathing room to move equipment around as needed, plus adjust to a whole new set of grade level outcomes, standards, learning targets, and students with individual needs, IEPs, 504s, behavior plans, medical notes, parent notes…all to be digested within minutes.
Instant activities also allow us to showcase the plethora of health-related fitness options with a fun catalyst, giving it a positive association, all while integrating SEL interactions and learning, again, showing students that they can exercise together and add elements like gamification and randomness to make it more fun. To the point about seeing kids once a week, when in that situation, you need to rely on them wanting to be active on their own. I feel that teaching concepts like health and fitness-related skills can be boring for children, but it’s important content they will need growing up and into adulthood. Now add some friends, dice, RPS, spinners, or cone-flipping to the mix, and students will be far more engaged as the learning of bodyweight exercise options becomes more tolerable, if not even joyous to many. There’s a reason gamified fitness apps have been created, even for adults. Zombies Run or Pokémon Go got millions of people moving for fun.
And by golly, instant activities bring joy to most kids (nothing is 100% in this world). It doesn’t take research to see the positive experience kids have while doing instant activities at the beginning of class, especially after being stuck in seats for hours (flexible seating and movement breaks help, but many classroom teachers still fight this over lack of control). I’ve even surveys them using Plickers magnets (plagnets) about how they feel before and after these activities, with positive results.
I’m going to respond to some major points that Dr. Justen O’Connor brought up in his blog, linked at the bottom. His is a solid read that will inspire reflection, but I feel it came from a purely philosophical perspective, and as someone who uses these activities daily with students in real-time, I wanted to share my views.
Is it about providing enough PA to make a meaningful contribution to overall fitness?
I feel the question is missing the point entirely. With weekly 40-minute lessons, instant activities allow teachers to showcase the hundreds of health-related fitness component exercises that students could use in their active futures. They learn that there are more than push-ups to help build arm, chest and shoulder muscles (which the fitness test doesn’t do justice to). And with activities that connect exercise to an outcome such as rolling dice, spinners, finger counting, RPS, hula hoop spinning, and others, it all shows children that exercise can be gamified or connected to joyous moments. When kids flip cones to land upright, they will have a different perspective or mindset when doing the exercise connected to how many successful flips they get. Now try the activity I just described, and then ask them to just simply try different exercises without something fun being connected. Moans, groans and angry faces abound. There’s something exciting about randomness or mystery (adults love gambling and game shows for a reason), and many of these instant activities offer that element of gamification.
With once a week classes, we will never get kids proficient in many skills, especially if you believe the research showing it can take anywhere from 10-20 hours (yes, students come to us at different levels, but it doesn’t matter, how much growth will there be seeing them 3-4 times a month?). I feel we need to expose children to as many different ideas as we can and hope that some of them stick for an active future. It’s not about how many push-ups students can do, unless you see them 3-5x a week, at which point you can influence growth. But for the rest of us, should we not show children all the options available simply because they won’t gain enough muscle or reps?
Is it teaching them about how to do fitness exercises? We don’t go to a gym and use an exercise randomizer.
I beg to differ. I’ve never gone to a fitness class where I knew the routine. It’s always random choreography from the instructor, which is part of the fun. Sure, if you go to lift weights, you no doubt have a routine set, but I liken instant activities more to fitness classes rather than weight training, especially given the social interactions and lots of movement. While I won’t argue that an instant activity shouldn’t be connected to a concept or idea, that’s up to each teacher to apply to their culture. In creating the instant activity resources, I share out via social media and my website, I see it as offering the P.E. world a tool to use. It’s up to each educator to figure out how to use it for their situations. There are so many different variables and needs around the world that I personally just let the tool be generic in nature, therefore it can be applied to almost any situation or need. If you’re doing underhand tossing that day, flipping is a good lead-up even though most kids don’t step with the opposite foot to flip (though some do). It helps teach force, distance, rotation, energy, trial-by-error, and other physics-based ideas.
So, are they embodying movement here?
This quote from Dr. O’Connor did get a chuckle out of me: “If you walk around at lunchtime, recess or after school and come across pockets of kids flipping a cone and launching into pushups, you know you are onto something.”
That was a cute statement, however, come on now, if that’s the bar for what’s worthy of our time, I should be teaching nothing but Fortnite dances, basketball shooting and sitting on bleachers. Creating a positive association between fitness & joy opens minds to the possibilities for their active futures. I believe the biggest issue here is that because an instant activity tool/resource is shared but doesn’t explicitly state how to facilitate meaningful connections for students, then the tool isn’t worthy of our time. Again, I leave it up to each teacher to use the tool as they need for their culture, and discussions like the one we had can help folks reflect on how to best implement them. Should there be discussion before or after? Absolutely! Anything we do in class should have some “why” that we share with our students. I often even offer choice of activity, or at least choice of equipment or fitness done within the activity when possible.
Are they learning social skills?
I use instant activities (IA’s from here on out) to enhance many social skills. I even have some specifically designed for understanding facial expressions. They can also build on greetings and thanks (shaking hands, fist bumps, high fives, etc), sportsmanship, look the classmates in the eyes, and simply working together on a task. It doesn’t have to be deep to be beneficial. I don’t usually do IA’s to increase accountable talk. I save that for discussions around the main lesson focus. IA’s are also a great way for students to work with a bunch of different peers, breaking through some awkwardness. If you tell them they need a new partner each time, it pushes them out of their comfort zone while still allowing them to find those they feel more connected to.
Again, in creating activity resources, I leave it up to teachers to apply it to their culture and needs. By not adding in specific ways to increase the learning, can some teachers do the bare minimum? Sure, but I think that applies to any teacher resource. I like to focus my time and energy on getting the most done in the least amount of time, and trust that teachers will apply it the best they can. I’m in my 22nd year, and still adjusting activities used for decades as I reflect on my teaching.
Is it just a ‘starter’ and we shouldn’t be concerned with it?
When I read statements such as “It's only for five-seven minutes, who cares?” it immediately feels disingenuous because it assumes someone who does IA’s doesn’t care about those 5 minutes of learning. If that were true, they’d just have kids run laps or doing push-ups to a whistle or cadence. As a resource creator, I certainly care enough to go to the lengths of creating activities that bring joy to children, and sharing them out.
To close this out, I want to share that practically every major physical education resource (at least based around the United States) shares instant activities as good practice for lessons. Be it SHAPE America, OPENPhysed.org/US Games, PE Central, Gopher, Flaghouse, and even most of the well-known P.E. teachers in our field share out instant activities all the time in workshops and on social media. Are they all wrong, or do some researchers simply miss the mark with regards to what instant activities bring to physical education?
Does every single second we spend with students need to be connected to a single main target objective, or can positive outcomes happen from joyous instant activities that help us build relationships and connections with their world? By offering them the chance to flip cones while exercising, does that bring more meaning and joy than ensuring that each IA is directly connected to the lesson focus? I’d love to see research that shows it’s detrimental to teach children that exercise can be connected to other fun ideas, even with random results. There’s a reason why so many apps have been created like Zombies Run, Pokémon Go, Nike + Run, Fitbit. Gamified fitness is so much more tolerable, perhaps even joyous enough, to promote continued participation…
Here’s the link to Dr. O'Connor's blog, which does bring up some valid points that we should reflect on.
A natural skeptic, for better or worse. I question everything, and love to disrupt the status quo if it's no longer serving a good purpose.