Teaching Physical Education During COVID-19: Lessons Learned

  •   
  •   
  •   

How do I do this?

If you’re a health and physical educator, chances are you muttered that question — in some form — when the pandemic forced schools to shift to a mostly distance learning format.

At that time, it quickly became apparent that typical lessons and practices would not transition easily to remote learning. Teaching physical education during COVID-19 would be no simple task.

Even those of us who consider ourselves tech savvy, with experience teaching online or using online instructional tools, had to reimagine our face-to-face courses as we shifted to pandemic pedagogies. In response to the uncertainty, the physical education community banded together to share online content resources, instructional strategies, and engaging activities for distance learning.

My coauthors and I have been working extensively with K-12 physical educators and pre-service teachers over the past year to support them as they address the question of “How do I do this?”

It has been amazing to work with resilient and creative physical educators at all stages of career progression as we have unpacked and found creative solutions to a significant pedagogical challenge.

Common Questions About Teaching PE During COVID

In Part 1 and Part 2 of a three-part series published in the April 2021 issue of JOPERD, we address the 10 most common questions we received when providing professional development to PK-12 physical educators throughout the pandemic and in our teacher education courses.

These questions reflect health and physical educators’ need to:

  • Meet the needs of low-income/disadvantaged students
  • Teach with limited or no equipment
  • Develop and maintain relationships online
  • Teach elementary PE online
  • Engage parents/families/guardians
  • Determine an amount of work to assign in class
  • Develop meaningful content for at-home learning
  • Design engaging distance learning lessons
  • Assess purposefully
  • Accommodate all students online

We encourage readers to look at the articles not just through the lens of applying these concepts to the online environment but as solutions to common problems that may also support quality teaching and learning during face-to-face instruction.

Providing Choice in Physical Education

A common theme across all articles in the three-part series is the concept of offering choice. Integrating student-centered teaching approaches, including the concept of “voice and choice” is relevant to at least eight of the 10 questions covered in these articles.

“Voice and choice” means giving students opportunities to provide feedback (a voice) and allowing them to select from a range of options that meet their needs and interests (choice).

There is established and emerging evidence that suggests offering students choices helps develop autonomy, increase engagement, and increase motivation. There are many ways for educators to include choice, such as:

  • Make physical activity meaningful. Let students choose activities that are meaningful to them. For example, if you are in a fitness unit allow students to choose the component of health or relevant skill they want to focus on and then guide them toward activities that will help them achieve their goals.
  • Use community asset mapping. Give students options and resources for activities in their community (e.g., trails, parks, frisbee golf courses, safe bike routes). It is amazing how many people (of all ages!) are not aware of the wellness-focused resources, clubs, meet-up groups, etc. that are in their neighborhood.
  • Remember Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL guides educators in the decisions they make to help provide flexible learning environments to accommodate individual learning differences. Here are some great definitions and examples of UDL in action. Physical educators should consider how they can utilize UDL principles to design their courses, assessments, and learning experiences to optimize the assets of their students.
  • Provide options for equipment and other modifications. It is important to remember all the ways we can modify the learning environment. This might include allowing students to choose the equipment they will be most successful with (playground ball vs. basketball) and giving them options for modifying game rules. Or you may want to use child-designed game teaching approaches and give students the option of choosing the level of defense (cold, warm, hot) that will allow them to be challenged but successful.

When providing students choices, it is important to remember to use invitational language and to avoid prescriptive language. This means providing a range of options for students to choose from, not requiring them to select a specific exercise or task. When using these teaching strategies, the primary job of the educator is to promote student reflection about their choices and guide them toward alternate opportunities if necessary.

Looking to the Future

In Part 3 of the JOPERD series, we address the “So now what?” question. Now that most of us have had to teach in a distance learning format during the last year — and likely learned some new technology skills — how can we use these new skills when returning to in-person instruction?

It would be a shame for health and physical educators to revert to pre-pandemic pedagogies that are devoid of 21st century skills and lack the student-centered approaches that many used during the pandemic.

A great way to leverage your online content is to think about ways you can integrate it into your face-to-face classes using a blended learning approach. Literature related to flipped and blended learning offer guidance not only of why we should be integrating technology into our face-to-face classes but how.

There are many benefits for blended and flipped learning including:

  • Promoting student autonomy including improved students’ preparation for class;
  • Increased knowledge and skill development opportunities and maximizing time in-class;
  • Promoting positive social interactions and student engagement through purposeful reflection and collaboration;
  • Shifting the teacher’s role to more of a “facilitator” and a dispenser of knowledge.

Although there have been many struggles over the past year, the silver lining from the COVID-19 pandemic is that health and physical educators have learned many lessons that can have positive impact on student learning as we return to the classroom, gymnasium, and other learning spaces.

What Can I Do?

Great question! First and foremost, educators need to practice self-care and ensure they are meeting the social and emotional needs of their students before learning can happen. Be kind to yourself as you transition back to in-person teaching!

As the profession looks forward to the 2021-2022 academic year (and beyond) do not hesitate to have hard conversations with your colleagues about the purpose of physical education and how you can rethink how you are meeting the needs of all learners.

Knowing that lasting change takes time, be sure to experiment with new teaching practices and take small steps. As was reinforced during the pandemic, we have a supportive health and physical education community with amazing resources to help you accomplish your goals.

Featured image by Giovanni Gagliardi on Unsplash.

Additional Resources


David Daum
David Daum

David Daum, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of kinesiology at San Jose State University in California. He teaches undergraduate courses in physical education and supervises physical education credential candidates during their student teaching. His scholarship focuses on technology in physical education including K-12 online physical education.

Tyler Goad
Tyler Goad

Tyler Goad, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation at Emporia State University. He recently completed his doctorate at West Virginia University with an emphasis in physical education teacher education. His research interest include online physical education, technology in physical education, and professional issues in teacher education/higher education.

Chad Killian
Chad Killian

Chad Killian, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of kinesiology at Georgia State University in Atlanta where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in physical education and advises doctoral students. His primary research interests involve studying the use and efficacy of digital instruction in the K-12 physical education environment.