Physical Education: Dangerous Play? Part 1

One rainy day, Neil Williams, Ph.D., decided to have his grade school students at an upstate New York school play dodge ball indoors. Something happened that changed his attitude toward childrens games forever, and it placed him at the center of a sometimes angry nationwide controversy over what should — and should not — go on in gym classes.

Williams, who is now chairman of Eastern Connecticut State Universitys Health and Physical Education Department, recalls the event this way:

It seemed like a lot of fun. The kids were running and screaming. Among them was this little, overweight 10-year-old girl with John Lennon glasses. She got popped in the face by a ball thrown by a 12-year-old kid who was the quarterback of a Pop Warner football team. He shattered her glasses, which cut her face, and broke her nose. She was crying, with tears and blood streaming down her face, while everyone else was laughing. It made me begin questioning what we were doing in physical education.

Physical education in the United States, he concluded, has been based on an athletic model, copied from English schools and based on competitive games, and not on a physical education model. The result is that in most classes the most athletically gifted dominate, and the less skilled do nothing.

Williams thinks thats wrong.

Ideally, all students should be active and involved, and the focus should be on learning skills, not on winning or losing. And he notes that the long-term result of using the athletic model in physical education shows that it doesnt work: Just look at all the overweight, out-of-shape adults.

Dodge Ball a Symbol
An article he wrote on the subject for the Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance included a Hall of Shame of games that he thought were out of place in school because they were competitive, aggressive or eliminative — meaning that students who failed to succeed were sent to the sidelines. They included dodge ball, kickball, Red Rover and musical chairs. It became the journals most requested reprint, and his views began to gain more and more acceptance among teachers, from the public school to the college level.

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