I have a few fond memories of my elementary school physical education days: the time we filled a real parachute with ping-pong balls, stood around it in a huge circle, held on to the edges, and shook it up and down in giant waves until every single last ping-pong ball had escaped onto the playground. I remember enthusiastically square dancing, jumping rope, and trying to keep a blown-up balloon in the air for as long as we could.
But I can honestly say that the most scarring event in my elementary school career was having to play kickball. I absolutely abhorred those kickball games. Here’s why.
No one had ever taught me how to kick or catch the ball, and I didn’t know the rules. I was absolutely frightened of the ball and the game; and I was terrible at it. To make matters worse, the other children loved kickball and it was evidently really easy for the teachers to just let us pick teams and play. Which brings us to another damaging aspect of the game: choosing teams. Two of the more aggressive, athletic boys would deem themselves captains, usually with the approval of the other students. (I’m not sure what the supervising teachers were doing at this point since we didn’t have smartphones back then.) Then we all lined up, and one by one, the players were chosen, from the best down to the worst. And guess who was almost always chosen last? Me.
So, after several failed attempts, most of which included a lame kick which inevitably missed the ball altogether, and possibly one or two attempts where my foot actually made contact with the ball but didn’t go anywhere, I was easily gotten out by said ball being thrown at my body or to first base long before I made it there. I was always an easy out. The frustration, annoyance, and disdain I felt from my peers was devastating. I made good grades. I never laughed at their bad poetry or terrible art projects. It seems like playing sports was the only time that students could be openly humiliated.
Then I discovered THE SOLUTION.
THE SOLUTION was actually incredibly easy. When my team was in the outfield, I got so far away from the diamond that I rarely, if ever, had to touch the stupid ball. When it was our turn to kick, I made sure that I was the last in line. I rarely actually made it up to the front of the line where I’d have to kick, but if I even got close, I’d ask the teacher if I could go to the bathroom. I was never denied. I would take a leisurely walk to the bathroom, and by the time I had returned, my team was always back in the outfield. Problem solved. Except I still felt chagrin every time teams were chosen, and I developed a strong distaste for sports. Thankfully, God created elementary school children with some resilience. But I decided two things back then:
Fast forward fifty years. Okay, a little more than that, but it’s close enough.
Now I am a teacher, and after fourteen years of refusing to teach physical education, I am the P.E. teacher. (Seriously. I once told the principal at an interview that I’d teach anything except P.E. He laughed, thinking I was joking. I assured him I was not.) So, I made three more decisions.
First, my students would be well-rounded. Besides learning how to play basketball, softball, tennis, and kickball, they would also take nature walks, fly kites, play croquet and badminton so that everyone would get to experience some type of physical activity that they actually enjoyed, and not have to play the ones they didn’t like (a.k.a. kickball) too often (which for me was just about every single P.E. class or recess except for the times the teachers found the parachute, jump ropes, or square dance record. Yes, record. I already dated myself to being in school in the 1960s, so it really doesn’t matter if I mention that now.)
Second, when we did play sports involving (cringe) balls, my students would be instructed and coached, ever so gently, how to correctly hit or catch the things.
Third, and most importantly, every single child from kindergarten up to whatever the oldest student was, would have a chance to hit the ball and run to first base in a positive, encouraging environment, without someone purposefully getting them out as quickly as possible, especially when they were just learning.
Sometimes that means standing ten feet away and pitching an unbelievably slow underhand pitch with a large, soft, bright yellow ball. Sometimes that means that the students get ten or fifteen tries before they hit the ball and run. That’s okay. They are learning the sport, having the opportunity to be physically active, and most importantly, they are working together, cheering each other on, and learning how to treat their fellow students in a kind way. All of this is done in a very non-threatening and encouraging environment. Everyone cheers when a kindergartener hits the ball. We all yell, “Run, run!” while he valiantly dashes for first base, with sixth and seventh graders purposely fumbling the ball and taking their time before they throw it to first base.
Everyone gets a hit.
Everyone makes it to first base.
And everyone certainly seems to have a positive attitude toward sports because of the way they have been treated by their fellow students and because of the way it has been approached.
Everyone feels comfortable trying to do their best in an encouraging, non-threatening environment. That is more important than having students shamed, embarrassed, and humiliated just because of a silly ball. Here are a few steps to take so that your non-athletic students can appreciate and enjoy sports.
How to Gently Initiate Students into Sports
I practice these rules for every sport, and my students not only know how to play softball, basketball, and tennis, but also how to be patient and kind with their fellow students. That’s gold!