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A quick snapshot of an inventing games lesson focused on net games

This is an excerpt from Playing Fair by Joy Butler.

This vignette provides a quick snapshot of an inventing games lesson focused on net games. We can readily appreciate the diversity of students’ skill levels and also how students are the architects of their own games. Through the teacher’s skillful questioning, both groups are able to analyze the constraints of their games and change their rules to make them more flowing, challenging, and fun. By working progressively through the constructs of their invented games and the corresponding strategies and tactics, they construct schema from which they can make comparisons to other games they will learn. As they negotiate the construction of their games, they also learn how to work closely with others.


Inventing games and learning about democracy (including social justice issues) might seem an unlikely pairing, because play is often considered frivolous and democratic ideals are often considered the most serious notions children can learn. In this book, we consider how inventing games offers seriously playful opportunities to learn democracy in action, because students learn by doing as they negotiate, debate, overcome conflict, and navigate through a series of problem-solving activities. In the physical environment, emotions are quickly stirred and issues around inclusivity become more visible and more pressing. How better to deal with issues of social justice, such as bullying and accessibility, than in such charged situations? Chapter 2 presents steps teachers can take to become more mindful in dealing with such situations.


Incidents of bullying are very much in the news; the tragic suicides of young people who have been bullied (both face-to-face and online) have shocked the world. As media pundits puzzle to find solutions to the problem of bullying, most educators understand that this is not an easy problem to fix. In a speech reported in The Vancouver Sun (June 29, 2013) about violence against women, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter suggested that rather than simply blaming and punishing perpetrators, we should be taking a hard look at overarching attitudes (including religious doctrines) that frame women as inferior. His point was that individual beliefs and actions are nested within, and thus highly influenced by, political, social, and economic structures.


This book does not purport to offer a magic bullet that will eradicate the age-old problem of bullying - for example, by constructing policies to deal with bullies or addressing the topic of bullying discreetly and directly with students. An increasing body of opinion suggests that our current methods (such as punitive zero tolerance, celebrities who speak out against bullying, limiting access to social media sites, or discrete short-term antibullying programs) are not working (Emdin, 2013; Prinstein, 2013). Rather, a comprehensive approach is required across the school curriculum to create sustainable change in the school culture. Physical education is particularly well positioned for such an initiative. Although it has been, ironically, a traditional site of dread for the unpopular and uncoordinated, physical education can offer students opportunities to experiment with, observe, and discuss issues of difference and power. Rather than thinking about these in the abstract, they can experience them firsthand as they practice the democratic principles and skills required to develop an ethic of caring (Gilligan, 1982).


This first chapter addresses the reintegration of play into games, the inventing games process, democracy in action, and the worldview teachers require to help their students become game inventors.


Ms. Craik scans her fourth-grade students, who are playing their invented net games.


A group of shy, uncoordinated girls have made up a game that makes large demands on their balance. A lanky team member spins around three times (with her eyes closed) and calls out the name of one of her opponents on the other side of the net as she releases the ball. Apparently, her challenge is to stay upright and make the pass accurately. Instead, she throws the ball off behind her before staggering dizzily around the court. Although her teammates squeal with laughter, the group is passionately engaged in this odd game of spin and throw.


At the other end of the ability range is a group of boys playing a modified version of Newcomb. They are immersed in a close contest - oblivious to anything else that’s going on.


Ms. Craik decides to start with the girls and calls them over for a chat, posing a few questions: How is their game working? Does it involve them all as much as they would like? The girls say there’s too much standing about and decide to change the spinning rule a bit to see if the game will flow more easily.


Meanwhile, Ms. Craik has challenged the boys to open up their game. How might they give themselves more time to strategize and structure a more organized offense? After a brief discussion, they decide to introduce a rule that allows two passes before the ball must be sent over the net. As she watches, Ms. Craik prepares questions about how this new rule and constraint on the game opens up the offense for new possibilities.


Key Concept: Inventing Games

This book is based on the inventing games (IG) process, a companion to Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU). The process is explained in the first five chapters as a curriculum model with clearly defined pedagogical principles. Building on the natural instinct of children to play, IG invites them to invent games in the four TGfU game categories. In the process of inventing games and then playing them, children learn about game structures, rules, and the principles of fair play.


Reintegration of Play in Games

Recently, 270 academics, writers, and child development professionals blamed "the marked deterioration in children’s mental health" on the lack of unstructured and loosely supervised play(Jacobson, 2008). According to a report produced by Statistics Canada (Ifedi, 2008), the 7.3 million Canadian adults who participated in one or more games ranked "fun, recreation, and relaxation" as the number one reason they played, above the need to stay healthy, meet new friends, hang out with family, or feel a sense of achievement. Yet, sadly, children are turning less and less frequently to games in their free time (Graf et al., 2004). Although organized sport opportunities for 5- to 13-year-olds in North America have doubled in the past 20 years (Hofferth & Sandberg, 2001), teenagers are opting out in large numbers (Ifedi, 2008; Visek et al., 2015). The following list, collected from several reports, summarizes the reasons young people gave for opting out of sports:

  • I lost interest.
  • I had no fun and it took too much time.
  • The coach did not empower players.
  • There was too much pressure and worry.
  • The coach played favorites.
  • The sport was boring.
  • There was an overemphasis on winning.
  • There was too much sport-specific practice and deliberate practice at a young age.
  • The sport programs were badly run.


What better way to recapture and maintain children’s interest in and enjoyment of sport than by offering them opportunities to explore and create through play and inventing games? Becoming a good team player takes years of discipline and effort, and becoming a good citizen takes years of civic engagement. The process must be enjoyable to ensure that students stick with it. Without the element of play, activity becomes routine, predictable, and lacking in possibilities. Moreover, democracy depends on human creativity; openness to change, adaptability, and creativity thrive in an atmosphere of freedom and openness, and vice versa. As Shogan (2007) suggested: "If ethics is less about compliance with codes and more about how we explore the ways in which these codes shape our lives, it is possible for people to become more directly involved in understanding and changing their own conduct" (p. 35). In the inventing games process, students are directly involved in constructing the rules that shape the game and their conduct within it. Rather than adopt a zero tolerance approach to bullying, in which bullies are sought out and punished, schools can create curricula that foster respect, fairness, and acceptance.


Children who are free to play have fun and feel safe. Because they are engaged emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually (as well as physically) in a holistic process, they want to stay in the game. They are more likely to invent variations in game play, alternatives that require quick analyses and creative responses. They are also more likely to experience what Kretchmar (2005) called delight. Moments of delight may happen infrequently in games, but they keep us coming back for more. Learning cannot be compartmentalized into behavioral domains and neatly subdivided into the cognitive, the psychomotor, and the affective, because human systems are nested and interconnected. A student who has just been criticized for poor performance in a skill drill is unlikely to make confident decisions, or decisions that involve risk. Holistic approaches, which take the affective experiences of students into account, are imperative for advancing our understanding of TGfU and learning in general. The next section provides a closer examination of inventing games as a medium for seriously playful learning experiences.


Key Concepts: Sport and Games

The words sport and game are often used interchangeably. However, although it is true that all sports are games, not all games are sports. Games derive from play and involve competition. Sport games are games of skill that have a large physical component, as opposed to games of chance or board games. Physical educators often refer to games in terms of games education, a subset of the physical education curriculum. The term sport is often used in the context of extracurricular activities attached to schools, communities, or private organizations.

Learn more about Playing Fair.