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by David Reeves
Marketing Director, Grounds For Play

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Topic tags: physical education, how to do PBL


February 23, 2015
Using Project Based Learning in Physical Education

by David Reeves
Marketing Director, Grounds For Play

Project Based Learning (PBL) often seems best suited for academic subjects, and when it comes to physical education and play, it's difficult to see how PBL fits. But with a closer look at Gold Standard PBL, and some creative planning, projects have a place in the gym or on the ball field as much as they do in the classroom. Here are some ideas and tips.

Ensure that Physical Education Is Happening

One reason PBL is not often brought into PE classes is that it’s difficult to find a way to encourage physical activity while working on a project. It’s easy to think of projects about health and wellness that may connect to PE class – such as “create a plan for a healthy lifestyle” – but those do not typically involve actual physical activity. While it may require some creativity, it is possible to ensure students are getting physically active while problem solving, conducting inquiry, creating a product, and all the other elements of PBL.

In an article from Whole Child, Andrew Miller explained one way this could work. He presented a scenario where high school seniors were given the task of creating PE units for middle school students, with the goal of encouraging the seniors to apply concepts and strategies they learned in their own PE education to create an engaging unit appropriate for middle school students, similar to those the PE teachers themselves would create. As the students focused on effective solutions, they were required to perform the activities in their unit to ensure that exercise and play were encouraged and achieved, and to prove the units would provide an adequate level of activity.

Create a Compelling Problem or Question

The central focus of Gold Standard PBL is giving students a problem or question they have to answer through the project. The problem or question has to go beyond simple knowledge — it needs to require students to apply the knowledge they have gained.

In Miller's example, the high school seniors, through experience and instruction, knew what activity and play looked like. They were also provided instruction on standards from the National Association for Sports and Physical Education that showed measurable ways they could determine if physical activity and appropriate learning were taking place.

Keep the Task Open Ended

Reflection and student voice and choice are crucial parts of PBL. For a PE classroom attempting to include PBL, keeping the challenge or task open ended is essential; this is done best by asking students to craft something new. Instead of simply quoting back knowledge, they will be involved in inquiry and innovation.

Consider a unit that asks students to create a new game for the class. The teacher may have their students include a skill they’re working on to help them practice, such as dribbling the ball, cardio stamina or one of the NASPE standards. The students are then given free rein to experiment and create, designing a game that will incorporate the skill. The open-ended nature of the challenge makes experimentation natural. Similar ideas include planning and conducting an Olympic Games with original events, or designing and using a running course around the campus (or out in the community, if possible) with obstacles or exercise stations with varying levels of challenge.

Use Peer Feedback

Peer feedback works well in the PE classroom. In the example of a student creating a new game, the class can be asked to play the game. This gives the students more physical activity, and also gives the game's creator crucial feedback as to what works and what doesn’t. Revision, another important spoke on the Gold Standard wheel, is often necessary to perfect the game.

Know the Educational Goal

While the student's main goal is to create and present a product, the entire project needs to center on the unit’s educational goal. From the beginning, teachers should have a clear understanding of what they hope to accomplish through the PBL process, whether it’s meeting PE curriculum standards or seeing students excited and engaged by physical activity.

PBL is effective because it involves the students on a deeper level, providing them with real-world skills they can take into college and beyond. Both of these benefits make it worth considering as an addition to the traditional gym class.

Do you have ideas for projects in PE? Make a comment below!


  • There must be many more ideas, I could use a few more…..

    Drjudy1 on March 24, 2015 
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    • I work at an small, nontraditional middle school in western USA. In our search for what will inspire and engage students, we have been looking at curriculum-embedded physical activity and PBL. We have no gym and limited outside space. In our search for innovative solutions I am having a group of students participate in PBL which will consist of them creating design plans for workout stations scattered across our small campus. Some of this inspiration came from a utube channel, Bar Brothers, who have an entire workout method using little more than pull up bars. I need to create the rubric for this first effort at PBL. I would love to hear suggestions as well any other resources to help use get started.

      randyth238 on March 17, 2016 
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  • I’ve had students design their own games within the scope of a regular lesson… and I love the idea of extending it as a project complete with standards and agreed rules!  In the past, I handed groups random pieces of equipment (ex: hula hoop, tennis ball, a base, and a noodle) and they had about 15 minutes to design a game [loved by all].  It would be cool to have upper elementary or middle school students mapping/ planning out an obstacle course that focuses on specific skills (ex: jumping/leaping; upper body strength/ etc.) I also came across a PBL assignment to design a cross-fit type workout- looked like a great form.

    PEyogini on May 3, 2015 
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  • I am a PE teacher from the UK and have been developing something called Organic PE which is based loosely on PBL.  The basic idea is to get students to work out problems for themselves based on a key question that drives their knowledge.  They then have to find the skills they need to solve the issue.  I have written about it here

    Mat Pullen on May 26, 2015 
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  • Hello I am a PE teacher from Spain. I am doing my doctorade about pbl. The Last year I did three project-based from área of PE. Circus, olímpics games in the old greece and above all we work the most popular sports or activities sport of my city (Marbella). The Children knew their enviroment(hiking or beach Football p.e) and created their PE sessións through cooperative methodology and practising with new technologies.

    vicente on September 8, 2015 
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