Tensions and tractions of moving together and alone in physical education | A summary


Laura Suominen Ingulfsvann1, Vegard Fusche Moe2 & Gunn Engelsrud2
1 Nord University; 2 Western Norway University of Applied Sciences


A wide variety of activities, instructional teaching styles, and physical activity for health characterise physical educational (PE) practices today. Many teachers in PE emphasise that to engage children, to have fun and to inspire them towards active lifestyles is at the core of their practices. On the other hand, several researchers are concerned that the emphasis on physical activity and fun sacrifices educational aims and objectives. They highlight that children are moving subjects, who need opportunities to experience and explore their own movement capacities in PE. These positions are competing for influence in PE. Our interest in this article, is to use these positions to explore children’s experiences of moving in PE. Even if most young children enjoy PE as a school subject, moving in the context of PE is a varying and ambivalent experience for children. Our aim was to gain understanding of children’s movement and qualities in movement in the context of PE.

To grasp the complexity that occurs when children move in PE, we adopted an affect theoretical perspective (Seigworth & Gregg, 2010; Spinoza, 2011), where the emphasis is the bodily aspects of human relations and interactions. Children’s movements involve both active and passive elements that are intertwined and are positioned within situations and environments in relation to other people, objects and features. We use the affect theoretical perspective to raise questions about tractions and tensions compared to experiences, feelings and thoughts. This enables us to discuss the children’s own formation of movement as well as how movements are formed in interactions between the children and specific environments and situations.

Central in the article is one particular PE lesson we have analysed in-depth. The lesson is one of 76 observational units with 10-11-year-old (5th grade) children in western Norway in the 2014–2015 school year. The lesson we chose occurred in a school in a rural area. The class consisted of 23 children, and the teacher was a recent graduate. The subject of the lesson was a tag and role game, called ‘sheep and wolverines’. During the game we identified how childrenbecame part of the game; played the game in their own ways; were drawn to one another and played together; were drawn in different directions and played alone, and how children’s movements, interactions between children and the situations changed and varied constantly in the flux of the game.

In the game ‘sheep and wolverines’ children play roles of sheep and wolverines and chase or run away from one another. In our example, the teacher picked the game from an activity booklet and instructed children on how to play it. The activity framework formed the way children moved or were expected to move. Meanwhile, the children’s actual movements formed the quality of the activity and what the game became. Each child moved (or chose not to move) in a unique way. Consequently, many actions and interactions occurred simultaneously, and the activity developed in multiple directions. Clearly, children were on some occasions drawn towards one another and played together. On other occasions they were drawn in different directions and played on their own. The children’s movements and interactions, as well as the environment and situations, continuously changed, which involved both an opportunity for something different or unusual to occur and the accumulation of permanent patterns. There was a continuous, reciprocal interplay between an activity, the established descriptions or rules for the activity, the teacher’s instructions, the norms, and social expectations, and the children’s own desires, ideas, and movements.

Moving together requires a capacity to relate to others and to handle the tensions that arise from becoming part of a social community and taking part in a social action. One challenge for the participants is to create opportunities for others to move while simultaneously seizing opportunities and engaging in movements with others. For some children, engaging in movement with others is easy, while others require guidance and support. Hopefully the findings might inspire to find ways to acknowledge and approach the tensions and tractions of moving in a group setting. Central elements are ways to embrace both the individuals and the collective, and ways to encourage empowering relationships between children within the activity framework in PE.

Another central aspect of the findings is the need to compromise one’s own desires, interests and ideas regarding the established descriptions or rules and the teacher’s instructions. On the one hand, descriptions and rules are an expression of authority, which previous studies have shown to undermine children’s enjoyment of PE. Following an authority also opposes ideals of fostering competence in learning, exploring, and creating which are central aims in PE. On the other hand, the findings indicate that rules and descriptions encourage the emergence and maintenance of a collective. They provide guidelines for how to work towards a shared purpose and how to handle situations that may emerge during an activity. The questions for PE teachers and further research are how the descriptions, rules and instructions are conveyed and practiced and how the children respond to them in various situations. Another question is when a conflict between the authorizing forces and the children’s own natures, desires, understandings and ideas appears, and when the rules, descriptions or instructions underpin children’s agency, growth and development. The qualitative aspects of movement (how to move) and the movement context (where to move and with whom) matter to children. The article contributes to insight in this ambiguous knowledge field.

Copyright © Laura Suominen Ingulfsvann,
Vegard Fusche Moe & Gunn Engelsrud 2021

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