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Opting out and opting in to physical education

A recent article on the BBC website noted that, for a variety of reasons, some boys are disengaging from Physical Education by purposefully forgetting their kit. Such strategies may be more common among particular groups – especially vulnerable youth, including those who are ‘care experienced’.

Opting out and opting in to physical education

For instance, a forthcoming study identified how ‘care experienced’ youth may choose to opt out of Physical Education lessons because of their prior experiences of sport/physical activity. A closer look at their life experiences shows that this may not necessarily be a reflection of their Physical Education experiences per se, while recent evidence suggests that Physical Education can be refined to fully integrate these boys.

Being ‘in care’ can be a highly disrupting and destabilising experience. Placement moves can profoundly disturb the consistency of school experiences. This makes it challenging for ‘care experienced’ boys to build friendship groups, while also limiting how well they develop the physical skills and competencies that help to make Physical Education classes enjoyable. Further, around 60% of young people enter care due to abuse or neglect; this makes getting changed problematic and only adds to the desire to opt out of Physical Education.

While this paints a bleak picture, the BBC article highlighted one school that ‘flipped’ Physical Education ended up providing pupils with greater ownership over their lesson activities. That approach helped to make the subject more relevant to the boys in the school and may be particularly helpful for ‘care experienced’ boys who rarely have a strong ‘say’ over their daily lives due to the power of various adult stakeholders involved in their care. Hence, providing them (and other young people) with choice and the ability to negotiate which activities they wish to engage with in Physical Education may be particularly appealing. While this may be difficult in some schools, there is evidence to suggest that listening to students has the potential to empower them and helps them to make this subject more meaningful for them.

Importantly, when we get it right, Physical Education has the potential to promote positive youth development in the many young people whose development has been compromised by external circumstances. Providing students with choice, fostering empathy and using activities to develop social connections may foster positive development and provide a platform that makes ‘care experienced’ youth want to opt into, and not out of, Physical Education.

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About the Author

Dr Thomas Quarmby

Tom is a Senior Lecturer in Physical Education (PE) and Sport Pedagogy. His research explores the role of sport and PE for youth from socially vulnerable backgrounds, specific care experienced children and young people.

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