PE is hell: How to actually get kids enjoying physical activity

Content note: This post discusses PE lessons. If you had a bad time in PE at school, this might dredge some stuff up for you.

I made a thread on Twitter about PE lessons today, and how I did all I could to avoid the weekly sessions of organised hell. It was popular, because my experience was far from being an outlier. I’ve yet to hear from even one person who didn’t despise PE and wasn’t left with lifelong emotional scars.

I was mostly a good kid at school, but my record was not unblemished: I had a series of detentions, and all of them were for PE, because I’d avoid it being forced to do it whenever possible. I’d maybe hide behind a shed instead of doing the cross country. I’d walk out of lessons. Once I participated in a small strike action with the other chubby, malcoordinated kids, where we sat down in the goal in protest at being made to play football when we all fucking sucked at football. The detentions were infinitely better than the PE lesson: usually it would entail tidying the equipment room, which was great fun, because I love arranging things into their correct places.

The nightmare starts in the changing rooms. You are around the time of puberty, as is everyone else, all at different points, and you are made to undress in front of others. A lot of people are forced to shower, naked, in front of others. Some were monitored by the PE teacher: an adult looking at naked kids, which is a gigantic safeguarding issue. This right here is an easy fix: install some cubicles for changing and showering. It’s an important lesson that we must teach children and young people that your body is your own and you should never be made to show it to others. This information protects children against sexual abusers, and yet, suddenly, in the context of a PE lesson, public nudity is enforced. That’s not good. And it’s additional hell for trans children, disabled children, late and early bloomers, any child who might not want to show their naked body to others. So, put up some cubicles.

I was a chubby kid with dyspraxia as well as bad eyesight and epilepsy. I wasn’t particularly built for sport, especially if they’d make me take my glasses off, so I couldn’t see what I was doing. PE was never going to be good for me, and indeed, it was absolutely horrible.

I hated the team sports. It felt like open season for bullying had been declared on me, because I wasn’t exactly a good addition to any team, what with not being particularly capable of kicking, throwing or catching a ball, nor hitting one. At best, I was mostly excluded from the games, with everyone playing around me. At worst, it was vicious mocking, berating and yelling because I was crap and I knew it. It must have been frustrating for my capable teammates, having to put up with me playing wing defence in their otherwise well-oiled netball machine, but it was an utter ordeal for me. And the worst thing was, I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. Even if I was all right at catching a ball, fuck knows what I’d do afterwards. I once scored a rather spectacular own goal in football because nobody had taken a moment to explain which way I was meant to be going. It’s the only goal I have ever scored, and I still remember the absolute exhilaration of having the ball, dribbling the ball, shooting, scoring! And then my team being pissed at me because, well, I made us lose.

Running was humiliating, too. Genetics meant I was never built for being a particularly good runner anyway, even if I hadn’t fucking hated it. I’d always come dead last, and the long distance was the worst for that, knowing all eyes were on me, as I struggled and puffed my way to the finish line while the teacher bellowed barbed encouragement. And don’t even get me started on the beep test; I am pretty sure the Geneva Convention has some pretty strong things to say about forcing someone to run until the point of exhaustion, with an added layer of social humiliation to top it off.

I was lucky to not have to do swimming in secondary school, although quite a few people on Twitter told me about that particular humiliation. The changing room experience ramped up to 11, with the added joys of many of compulsory swimming’s victims having periods. Again, I was lucky that periods weren’t much of an issue for me: I didn’t start until I was 14, and my periods were so fucking irregular I think I only had about three while I was at school. However, I’ve been told of the horror of having to say, when the register was called, in front of everyone, that you are currently menstruating and therefore shouldn’t be swimming–and then the teacher would log your period so they could catch you out if you used the excuse a little too often! Which, as well as being an experience I cringed by proxy hearing about, is also pretty awful for young people whose periods are just settling down so they will have a weird cycle and might be on more than once every four weeks.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There were a few activities I did like during PE lessons. I loved rounders, because if I was fielding, the team would put me somewhere the ball was unlikely to fly, because everyone was wise to the fact I was rubbish at catching. And batting was even better, because there was no way on god’s earth I’d hit the ball, so could go back to sitting around. The fact I liked rounders because it was a massive doss speaks volumes to how badly PE was taught. But I also rather liked gymnastics and trampolining, and it was a pity we almost never got to do that–I wasn’t every good at those sports either, but they weren’t competitive, and it was fun to try out something new to me.

My experiences were not uncommon, and it is not a fault of any of us PE-hating kids. There’s nothing wrong with us. It’s that the entire system is fucked. A part of PE lessons being fundamentally broken for the vast majority of kids is likely that same right wing nostalgia that bred a Brexit vote. Older generations had a horrid time in PE, and so younger generations should suffer, too. It’s character building, or some other nonsense. I mean, yes, it built character for me in a way, as I learned about making excuses, but that’s not really a particularly positive skill to learn.

Another problem is the objective doesn’t seem to be to get children and young people to be physically active, but rather, to maybe try to breed a sports superstar. Certainly, my experience and that of many others is the PE teachers would focus most on the capable kids, encouraging them, cheering them on, catering to their level. This is a problem, because statistically it’s almost certain that the next Mo Farah isn’t in your PE class, and if he was, it would be good if his talents could be nurtured with better access to free out-of-school and after school training.

Streaming classes by ability would probably help address this a lot, but broader changes to the way things are done would be invaluable. Rather than focusing on the kids who are already good, try to nurture those who aren’t. For example, I was never taught proper techniques for basketball, just yelled at because I couldn’t bounce a ball and run at the same time, by my teacher and my peers. It would have been much better if rather than just chucking a ball and some bibs at a class and instructing us to play basketball, I could have had a “you’re doing OK, but you need to work a bit on how to do this. Let me help you.” I might not have just fucking walked out of a lesson had that been the case.

Cracking down on peer bullying would also help immeasurably. If someone is shouting at the crap unsporty kid for letting down the team, send them off. Teach them good sportsmanship. Teach them to be an actual team player: the problem is with them.

Of course, a lot of those Brexit-voter nostalgia types will cry that I am advocating for PE lessons to be less competitive and let me be clear: yes I am. I want the element of competition completely eliminated from PE. It fosters bullying behaviour, and it’s demoralising, and it is a huge driver in the hatred of PE. Fuck who’s doing best at a sport, let’s recognise and accept that success looks different for everyone and cater to that.

Running 400 metres instead of 1500 is a huge achievement for some kids; celebrate that, rather than forcing them to run almost four times that length. Just being able to catch that ball is a vast achievement for many: celebrate that. And yes, get kids doing activities that suit them best and they like. Give them chances to try out various sports and types of exercise and choose which ones they want to do. Have a wider range of activities on offer, such as martial arts, circus skills or yoga. If there’s a whole-class football game, consider letting some kids referee rather than play: they’ll still run about, but they’re not being made to do something they’re not good at.

Accept when someone says they can’t do PE that week without pressing as to why. They know their body best, their limitations, and it’s kinder not to force someone to announce they’re menstruating. Ask if there’s anything they’d like to do that lesson, an indoor, lower-intensity exercise like yoga, perhaps. If PE isn’t a hellish experience, they’ll probably not be trying to bunk off–young people are only bunking off of PE because it’s an awful experience.

Yes, it’ll probably cost money to offer opportunities to try different activities, but the government is constantly on about throwing money at PE to “combat obesity” and “encourage activity” so why not do something that stands a fucking chance of achieving the latter, at least, rather than failing miserably at both (of course, a PE lesson is hardly going to combat obesity, a rather sketchy goal in itself!)

A lot of this rests on an assumption that admittedly runs counter to personal experience: that PE teachers are not fascist child-hating bullies who delight in dominating children and watching them suffer, but instead actually want to encourage children to take up physical activity. But if the former applies, fucking sack them, because they’re unfit teachers.

PE could be a nurturing environment where children learn useful skills for life, such as teamwork and cooperation, do some exercise each week, and carry that enjoyment of sport and physical activity into adulthood. At the moment, for many of us, it’s been the exact opposite of that. PE doesn’t have to be a hellish ritual humiliation, but a lot has to change.

And once again, to my fellow PE-haters: you’re not alone, and it wasn’t your fault that your PE experience was awful.

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6 thoughts on “PE is hell: How to actually get kids enjoying physical activity”

  1. Oddly, though PE was a nightmare for me too, it also provided the proudest moment of my school career.
    The usual route for the weekly cross-country run went past my house so, obviously, I stopped for a cuppa.
    Then there was a run a bit further afield, along the side of a triangle of roads. I think it was meant to show off the talents of the already athletically gifted but, to feign some fairness, it was a handicap race. Guess who started first! I found myself way ahead at the end of the first leg of the triangle, and still ahead at the end of the second, which is when I though I might actually have a chance of not being humiliated, and decided to put in some effort. I came in first.
    That wasn’t my proudest moment. That came later, back at school, when I was “presented” with a little medal that had been intended for the PE teacher’s star pupil. It wasn’t so much presented as thrown at me! I still remember the look on that teacher’s face, a mixture of fury and disgust and, I think, disappointment that he couldn’t throw the medal harder, though I may have imagined that.

    1. I’m really bad at PE so whenever I failed to catch something or dodged out of the way of a ball to avoid getting hit with it I’d spend the day being bullied worse than usual. I also can’t skip without hitting my ankles and it’s really humiliating to be visibility several levels shitter at something basic than everyone else. I also spent it experiencing low-key dysphoria and wishing I was able to go in the boys class with my friends (all of my friends were boys so I would always be on a team with people who were basically strangers and get left out). In the changing rooms I’d get yelled at for violating social rules I didn’t understand. I think reducing team games and competitive sports would be a good idea. Also not gender segregating PE would be good for trans kids

  2. Ball sucking sports: Running, jumping, football, basketball, cricket, swimming, 98% of sport activity in my secondary school.

    Cool as fuck sports: Discus, javelin, shot put. Hardly ever. Would have liked archery as well but not a chance in ball-sucking secondary.

    Before anyone says these don’t sound very safe; children died in cricketing and swimming accidents at my school while I was at school.

    My junior school did loads of english baseball and shinty, though. Both cool.

    If they we serious about child health they’d make sure they get good free food. Free after-school dance clubs wouldn’t go amiss either.

  3. All of this resonates so much. Looking back at my childhood, I actually enjoyed physical activity: I used to go jogging with my mum, loved going to my Grandma’s keep fit classes with her, and nearly every night in spring and summer all the kids in our street used to play skipping games with a massive skipping rope. But the hell that was PE drummed all that out of me and convinced me that I hate doing physical activity. It had the opposite effect than what was intended (or at least what they pretend is intended).

  4. I didn’t know PE needed a trigger warning until now. I think now I understand why, lol.
    I also have dyspraxia, and physical disabilities bad enough to be mis-diagnised as Cerebral Palsy. Plus Athma.

    Would you force a blind kid who hated painting to do a painting class they didn’t choose, over and over and over, and then constantly blame THEM when they can’t even get the paint on the canvas? And then call them fat for absolutly no reason?
    This is exactly what PE is.

    Now whenever I see someone playing a ball sport near me I nearly have a panic attack and have to give them a wide girth. I can’t even go outside when there is a ball around. I’m almost demanding that sports people drop everything just so I can go outside and do what I need to do, even when they are nowhere near me. Is that normal?

    I have been forced to run TWICE as far as the normal kids, even after the athma attack in the first loop. This meant I was back at class an hour late.

    And this was all done to ‘improve my fitness’, doing this same thing, over and over and over. Getting the exact same result and expecting a completly different one.
    I now have arthritis in every joint below the waist.

    Guess what?

    I. WASN’T. EVEN. FAT!!!

    I am now. Because PE CAUSES obesity.

    I don’t remember anyone besides PE teachers calling me fat at that time. No other teachers. Hardly any classmates. Hardly any family.

    If I have kids, I might be homeschooling them for this very reason.

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