5 Tips for Teaching Physical Education Without a Gym

Are you losing your gym space for a class period, a day, a week or longer? It’s not unusual. At some point, most physical education teachers have had to give up the gym for a concert, rehearsal, assembly, construction, or other school/community activity.

And, although teaching PE without a gym is not ideal, it is possible.

I once taught physical education classes outside — in Minnesota — for a full school year (and a month into the next year) when our gymnasium was being renovated.

My classes dealt with snow, rain, thunder, and bitter cold windy days.

At times it was a challenge, but the experience proved to be great for my mental health, creativity, and growth as a teacher. And, most of our students learned to appreciate the outdoors. Many were even worried we wouldn’t continue with outdoor lessons when the gymnasium was finished.

Here are some of my favorite tips for teaching physical education without a gym.

1. Have a Growth Mindset and Set Expectations

It’s important to see this as an adventure. Be positive and prepared — as well as flexible and creative! We let students and parents know that we would be going outside in most weather conditions and that they should dress in layers. We stayed outside in light rain. It took a bit for the kids to realize we were serious and that they should dress appropriately for the weather.

2. Accept That Mother Nature Rules

Let the seasons determine your unit order. For example, as it got colder in the fall it was hard to play throwing and catching games, but soccer worked well. We also played more large group games than usual such as capture the pumpkin (Halloween) and capture the turkey (Thanksgiving). In the winter we did sledding and other winter Olympic activities.

Embrace nature and roll with the distractions. If it’s windy, cancel your frisbee lesson. If you have sticky snow, make snow forts (this is a great cooperative activity). When an eagle soars overhead, stop and enjoy the sight. When you see lightning, go inside.

3. Embrace All Available Space

What outdoor space can you use? Teach your students about boundaries and that outdoor PE class is different than recess. Use available outdoor playground structures but explain the purpose and use them in a different way than recess. For example, we used the play structures for warm-ups (chutes and ladders, follow the leader, partner exercise, upper body workout, climb and jump, etc.).

Here are some ideas for outdoor activities: wheels week, popsicle run, parkour in the park, yard games, orienteering/scavenger hunt, environmental awareness (nature, Earth Day), small-sided team sports, seasonal games (autumn games), invasion games and tag games.

Always have a backup plan for when weather sends you inside. On indoor days, we had to use classrooms and hallways more than the cafeteria. Stairwells can provide a great fitness workout. Being inside is a good time to introduce proper technique for exercises/fitness and teach partner skills (how to motivate and correct a partner’s exercise form). Fitness and dance videos are great.

At times (like during testing periods), we had to stay quiet in the classroom. We did some silent challenges, such as toss and catch with a partner and silent juggling.

When we could use the cafeteria, we usually did some type of stations (fitness stations, skill stations, jump rope, etc.). Fitness stations and speed stacking stations do not take up a lot of space. Use YouTube to find fitness and yoga videos, small group challenges, reaction drills for hands and feet, tennis ball drills (learn to use both hands).

4. Optimize Equipment

Can you use what you have, or will you need some outdoor equipment? We told our administration team that we would need money to supplement both outdoor and indoor activities.

We bought speed stacks for indoor use and outdoor sticks for snow hockey. (Our students love snow hockey, snow soccer and snow team handball!) Here’s my list of essential outdoor and classroom equipment.

5. Maintain Communication 

Start by making it clear to students and parents that teaching outside is not recess. Next, know your school’s weather policy. If necessary, have the administration create a weather policy and make sure everyone is aware of it.

Weather can change quickly so you need to have good communication with teachers. Get a two-way radio to keep in touch with the main office and health office while you are teaching outside.

Final Considerations for Teaching Physical Education Without a Gym

If you are without a gym for an extended period of time, will it impact how you grade? Discuss this with your administration.

And finally, as always, take care of yourself. Dress in layers, wear sunscreen, hydrate, and get enough sleep!

Additional Resources

Sarah Totall

Sarah Totall has been teaching physical education at different grade levels (from preK-12) for more than 25 years. Currently she teaches grades K-8 at Yinghua Academy in Minneapolis, MN, where she is also the athletic director. Her school superpower is creating and adapting games. She can be reached at sarah.totall@yinghuaacademy.org.