This is an excerpt from Teaching Children Gymnastics 3rd Edition eBook by Peter H. Werner,Lori H. Williams & Tina J. Hall.
How Gymnastics Should Be Taught
To teach a system of basic body-management and gymnastics skills well, you should be aware of some research on teaching and the study of how content knowledge of gymnastics combined with pedagogical knowledge of teaching interact (Graham 2008; Shulman 1987). If you want children to become skilled gymnasts with positive attitudes toward managing their bodies well, you must adhere to the following practices.
Begin With Knowledge of Skill Components
Although you needn’t be an expert performer to teach a skill, there is no substitute for knowing how it is performed. Otherwise you have no idea what to look for, what performance cues to give, how to evaluate a child’s performance, or what to correct. Imagine a teacher trying to teach the cartwheel. She says, “You put your hands down, then your feet.” An inaccurate demonstration by the teacher or a selected child follows. Children begin practicing. Some succeed. Others crash to the floor with arms and legs bent and out of control. “Try again; you can do better,” the teacher encourages. But poor form continues.
The children obviously need a better model. Because the cartwheel is sequential, spoken performance cues like these are needed:
- Start in a wide stretch, with your arms and legs stretched like spokes in a
- Place hand, then hand, then foot, then foot on the floor.
- Start and finish facing the same direction.
- Keep your arms and legs straight.
- Try to get your shoulders over your hands and your hips over your shoulders when you are upside down.
- Push hard with your hands and arms as you return to your feet.
- Keep your body tight.
- Land softly on your feet.
Allow Considerable Practice Time
Children need lengthy and appropriate practice to learn such skills as a roll; a cartwheel; a balance; or a sequence involving a balance, a weight transfer, and a second balance. When you line students up and spot them one by one, they may get only one or two attempts before moving on to a new skill; the rest of the time they are waiting in line. This is not a good use of teaching time.
Let’s examine a common format for teaching the forward roll, the backward roll, and the log roll. Children are lined up in squads at each of four mats. They listen to an explanation, watch a demonstration, and begin to practice. Each child takes a turn and returns to the end of the line. After three tries, they learn the next roll. Their total practice is only nine attempts—three times on three rolls.
Although each roll may be taught with an excellent explanation and demonstration, the children aren’t getting enough practice to capitalize on the good instruction. These children could get in much more practice if you were to reorganize the class, perhaps by assigning partners to go back and forth across the mat or by having one mat for every two students or carpet squares for every child in open (scattered) formation (see figure 1.6).
Use Developmentally Appropriate Activities
Children are not miniature adults; they have very different abilities, needs, and interests. Likewise, preschool children are not the same as elementary school children. The point is that programs need to be developed to meet the needs of children’s various age and ability levels.
Activities in gymnastics for children should start out with basic skills and simple sequences. Gradually, more difficult skills can be added as children are ready for them, as well as sequences that are more complex and require higher levels of problem-solving ability. Children should progress from working by themselves on mats to working with small and large equipment and partners or small groups.
Students’ satisfaction results from success. High success rates on tasks and a student’s general achievement are positively correlated. When a task is too hard or above their ability level, children become frustrated, giving up or engaging in off-task behavior. You can design tasks or movement problems to allow for differences in the children’s individual levels. When tasks are at appropriate levels, students will be challenged. Rather than require an entire class to do a headstand for 10 seconds or a handspring, it would be more appropriate to work on balances in inverted positions or the transfer of weight from the feet to the hands and back to the feet. For example, some students may do reasonably well learning backward rolls, whereas others have a great deal of difficulty because the arms are weak, the head gets in the way, they have limited abdominal strength, or they open up instead of staying tucked.
Consider modifying the task for students who have difficulty. For example, using a backward roll over the shoulder eases the move. Another alternative is to work on the concept of rolling in general, showing students how to transfer body weight from one adjacent body part to another. After they learn this concept, then children could roll choosing a direction and style that they can accomplish successfully. Once a roll is mastered, challenge the children to link a roll with a balance or a traveling action, taking the skill to a higher level of difficulty.
Consider also all children with special needs. Just because some children are more challenged than others does not mean that gymnastics is inappropriate or that children with special needs are unable to perform gymnastics. Be willing to adapt or modify skills or alter your teaching style to accommodate the needs of each child. A person in a wheelchair can perform balances while in the chair or down on the floor. She can perform rolls or rotation movements by spinning wheels and rotating through a vertical axis. Some children who use a wheelchair might have very strong arms but weaker and more atrophied lower bodies. Such students may actually have an advantage when it comes to supporting weight with the arms. Students who have intellectual disabilities or are autistic may need a peer helper, special verbal or visual directions, or passive manipulation through a skill.
Encourage Cognitive and Affective Development
Rich learning environments engage children both cognitively and affectively. Children need to learn good body mechanics and understand why one balance is better than another. To challenge their minds, children need tasks that require resolution. They need to examine which movements link together well. Children need to work together with peers, giving and receiving feedback on form, suggesting alternatives to movements, and helping each other perform new skills (see figure 1.7).
Often teachers ask children to do predesigned skills or sequences without allowing them input in the matter. Instead of specifying a scale into a forward roll or a round-off into a backward roll, try designing open-ended movement tasks. For example, you could say to the children, “Perform a balance of your choice and hold it for three seconds. Move smoothly into a rolling action. Finish with a second balance.” Or, “Take weight momentarily on your hands and, as you return to your feet, perform a roll of your choice.” As children choose which skills link together more smoothly and which skills look and feel more aesthetically pleasing, and as they give and receive feedback from partners, they gain an appreciation for, and begin to value, what it takes to be a quality gymnast. This is the essence of affective development. They can work alone or with a partner to develop good responses to this instruction.
Offer a Structured Environment
A structured and focused learning environment helps children understand goals. When teachers set goals, children know what is expected. The children know what to do and how to do it. Goals also make children accountable when the time comes for assessment.
Some teachers assign several balance positions in no apparent order and for no apparent reason. Children learn a scale, stork stand, tip-up, and tripod. They practice a hodgepodge of animal walks, such as the crab walk, bear walk, and mule kicks. By putting balances and movements into logical sets, you help your students understand why they are learning them.
At the beginning of the gymnastics unit or lesson, give students a brief orientation. Tell them what to expect: “Gymnastics is about putting balances together with traveling actions, weight transfers, and rotations.” You might add a demonstration. This way the students receive a clear picture of the goal for the day or the unit.
Read more about Teaching Children Gymnastics, Third Edition by Peter Werner.