Taking Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU) to a new level

Mikael Londos
Dept. of Sport Sciences, Malmö University

Joy I. Butler (with Linda L. Griffin, James Mandigo, Kevin Sandher, Tim Hopper, Steve Mitchell, Bobby Gibson)
Playing Fair: Using student-invented games to prevent bullying, teach democracy, and promote social justice
275 pages, paperback.
Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics 2016
ISBN 978-1-4504-3543-7

Before I start reviewing this book, a few words to remember the author by. Dr. Joy I. Butler, a lifetime athlete and educator, was a Professor at the Dept. of Curriculum and Pedagogy at UBC, Vancouver, until her passing on September 16, 2019, surrounded by friends and chosen family. She was coordinator of Health, Outdoor and Physical Education (HOPE) programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels, including two-year MEd Cohorts for Health, Outdoor and Physical Experiential Education (HOPE-Ed). For more information see https://edcp.educ.ubc.ca/faculty-staff/joy-butler/ and https://www.remembering.ca/obituary/joy-butler-1077415559

Joy Butler’s research and teaching developed around constructivism, complexity thinking, situated ethics and community wellness. She was active in international scholarship, organization, and advocacy for Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU). She founded and was Chair of the TGfU Task Force in 2002 and developed its evolution into the TGfU SIG in 2006. She directed the 1st and 4th International Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU) Conferences in 2001 and 2008. She was invited to give presentations and workshops on TGfU in many different countries, including Finland, Singapore, Australia, Spain, Taiwan, Hong Kong, UK and Colombia. She created and was Chair for the TGfU International Advisory Board comprising of 17 individual country representatives. Joy wrote, edited or coedited seven TGfU books.

I met Joy at the (5th) International Conference of Teaching Games for Understanding at Loughborough University, a week before the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. On July 14, Joy gave a keynote at the conference entitled “Emergent learning focused teachers and their world views”. She impressed with a dedication to the field that also appeared in the practical sessions she attended with great enthusiasm. In one of these practical game sessions were we opponents in an intense game, and I sprained my ankle. Joy helped me out and were concerned for my wellbeing. I do remember her as an openminded person saying and also doing what she believed in, playing fair and willing to promote social justice.

The seventh TGfU conference will be held in Worcester this summer, see https://tinyurl.com/uegzbsp.

The foreword to Butler’s 2016 book Playing Fair is written by Len Almond, who co-authored Rethinking Games Teaching (1986), the book that marks the start of TGfU, with Rod Thorpe and David Bunker. Almond, who passed away a year after Playing Fair was published, wrote that Joy had restored the significance and provided new insights to games making and inventing games in connection to the intention of TGfU. Her text “will awaken the need for giving young people a voice in their own learning and provide rich opportunities for a range of attributes that go beyond motor skills and learning through drills.” Butler took the TGfU approach to a new level. She incorporated the need for development of group processes and democratic behaviors that will promote personal growth for students as well as the ability to prosper in group situations. Butler took seriously the call at the very end of Rethinking Games Teaching: “Would anybody like to join us?”. Joy Butler certainly did that.

My overall impression of this book is that it really contributes to the understanding of concepts presented in TGfU and has a clear focus on democracy letting the student voice be heard and be practiced.

With the help of Playing Fair, teachers will be able to create learning environments typical of the TGfU approach and offer students possibilities to develop abilities as problem solvers, decision makers, and team players. Whether a host of other skills, strategies, and concepts that students learn can be transferred not only to other games but also to other life situations can be questioned, and will be further discussed at the end of this review.

My overall impression of this book is that it really contributes to the understanding of concepts presented in TGfU and has a clear focus on democracy letting the student voice be heard and be practiced. The book is ambitious and covers all four categories of games included in TGfU. I could problematize these categories further, since I can see differences in the overall approach connected to the aim for different games. But it has more to do with the TGfU concept than the book and this review. Playing Fair gives Physical Education and Health (PEH) teachers necessary theoretical and pedagogical input to develop games teaching with a democratic approach to promote social justice and, together with the cognitive, psychomotor, and affective domains, fulfill primary goals of the PEH curriculum.

The book contains of 15 chapters. The first four are written by Butler, and explains the concepts of democracy in action and learning social justice through inventing games. Scaffolds for learning and developmental learning dealing with moving, thinking and feeling as well as curriculum design are thoroughly explained for the reader to be able to understand games constructs. Ideas from non-linear pedagogy uses TGfU as an example in skill acquisition (Chow et al. 2016). Butler recommends a world view of ecological complexity.

Chapter five is co-written with Linda L. Griffin and deals with the pedagogical principles of active learning and a game-centered approach that shifts the pedagogy from teacher centered to student centered by placing responsibility on students. Five other authors contribute with chapters of their own. They add principles and practical approaches to the four different TGfU game categories (target games, striking games, net and wall games, and invasion games), explaining how to teach student invented games in order to teach democracy and promote social justice. Each of these chapters uses innovative approaches with examples from shuffleboard, cricket, pickleball, soccer and touch football, and transfers the inventing games process to institutionalized sports with an intention to work for democracy in action principles. The authors of these chapters illustrate the concepts in a slightly different way, but it does not matter, although the reader will need to problematize how to use the ideas. Chapters written by Butler are always framing and explaining how the inventing process can work for each chapter in the game categories.

I believe in promoting social justice and expecting teachers to understand social inequities, but for me, including Sport Education models and competition in PEH is counterproductive.

Antisocial behavior and bullying are ongoing problems in schools today and it seems to be the same problem everywhere. Playing Fair has the ambition to prevent bullying, but the way it is shown in practical examples makes is hard to understand. Closely connected to this problem in PEH is the role of competition. Butler explains how to compete and competition can be understood in a short paragraph in the second chapter. “Etymologically speaking, to compete means ‘to strive to achieve a goal’ … A second meaning of competition is ‘to come together’” (Butler 2016 s. 20). I agree with these explanations but I cannot see how winning–losing, keeping scores, placements in a tournament and ranking has a place in an educational system based on learning goals. All over the book, chapters end with a tournament like a Sport Education model. I cannot see how the explanation of competition rhymes with the practical examples in the book.

In Sweden ranking in competition and tournaments has been under debate for a long time and there are always students that will be excluded in settings like this. Invasion games like soccer, floorball etc. are very popular in Sweden and frequently in use during PEH lessons. Ball players (mostly boys) gain advantages during lessons and use this as a power tool towards other students lacking skills for playing ball (Londos 2010). I believe in promoting social justice and expecting teachers to understand social inequities, but for me, including Sport Education models and competition in PEH is counterproductive. In a recent study, the Swedish Schools Inspectorate (2018) has found that the actual course content in PEH at several of the schools under review makes it more difficult for all pupils to develop a sense and an understanding of social justice. Some students may be excluded and find it more difficult to participate. It happens particularly when lessons has ball games in a competitive way including ranking and tournaments. Aggerholm (2018) questions if activities with competition should be a part of any PEH curriculum. The relation between PEH and leisure time sports is strong, especially in ball games (Londos 2010). It is important to remember that leisure time sports are voluntary and that its object is different from the educational purpose of the school subject PEH. I believe TGfU has a great potential and I have been teaching it for the last 27 years in PETE at Malmö University.

The concepts democracy in action and inventing games that Butler is writing about in Playing Fair can be adapted into PEH in Sweden. By doing so, concepts and practical ideas for lessons offered in Playing Fair can address problems that students will learn more about, including conflict resolution, inclusion, democratic decision making, leadership, and bullying. But I cannot see how it can work in conjunction with the Sport Education model and competition.

I strongly urge all Physical Education Teacher Education teachers and Physical Education and Health teachers to read Playing Fair: Using student-invented games to prevent bullying, teach democracy, and promote social justice by Joy I. Butler, to get inspired by and helped to problematize games teaching. I recommend the reader to start with the initial five chapters of the book and then choose chapters according to what kind of game category is up for choice.

Copyright © Mikael Londos 2020


Aggerholm, Kenneth (2018) Competition in Physical Education: Avoid, Ask, Adapt or Accept? Quest. Volume 70, 2018-Issue 3.
Chow, Jia Yi, Keith Davids, Chris Button & Ian Renshaw (2016) Nonlinear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition: An Introduction. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Londos, Mikael (2010) Spelet på fältet: Relationen mellan ämnet idrott och hälsa i gymnasieskolan och idrott på fritid.[The Play on the Field: The Relation between the Subject of Physical Education and Health and Leisure Time Sports]Malmö: Malmö University
Skolinspektionen (the Swedish Schools Inspectorate) (2018). Kvalitetsgranskning av ämnet idrott och hälsa i årskurs 7-9. [Quality review of the subject of Physical Education and Health in grade 7-9] Diarienummer: 400-2017:3948 https://www.skolinspektionen.se/globalassets/publikationssok/granskningsrapporter/kvalitetsgranskningar/2018/idrott-och-halsa/kvalitetsgranskning-av-amnet-idrott-och-halsa-i-arskurs-79.pdf
Thorpe, Rod, David Bunker & Len Almond (1986) Rethinking Games Teaching. Department of Physical Education and Sport Science, University of Technology. Loughborough


Table of Content

    1. Play, Inventing Games, Democracy in Action, and Worldview
      Joy Butler
    2. Teaching and Learning Social Justice Through Inventing Games
      Joy Butler
    3. Scaffolds for Learning: Schema, Transfer, Classifications, and Rules
      Joy Butler
    4. Developmental Learning and Curriculum Design
      Joy Butler
    5. Pedagogical Principles
      Joy Butler and Linda L. Griffin
    6. Inventing Unopposed Target Games
      Joy Butler
    7. Innovative Approaches to Opposed Target Games
      James Mandigo
    8. Inventing Striking Games: Danish Longball
      Joy Butler
    9. Striking Game: Cricket
      Kevin Sandher
    10. Inventing Net and Wall Games
      Joy Butler and Tim Hopper
    11. Net and Wall Games: Pickleball
      Tim Hopper
    12. Inventing Invasion Games
      Joy Butler
    13. Invasion Game: Soccer
      Steve Mitchell
    14. Invasion Game: Touch Football
      Bobby Gibson
    15. Final Thoughts
      Joy Butler
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