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Gymnastics & Literacy – an alignment to support learning.

6 December 2023

Link & ‘Flow’ in & through Gymnastics – supporting Literacy.

For those familiar with primary gymnastics & the national curriculum ‘link & flow’ are not new words. However, over the years that I have been delivering staff CPD in & around gymnastics I have come to look at the wider connotations of these two words, & their link to learning & engagement.

I believe that effective teaching helps pupils to make ‘links’ between other concepts & wider learning both within PE & beyond. It helps consolidate schema & allow pupils to see the bigger picture whilst also helping others (staff colleagues) to see that PE can make a significant contribution to whole school development & learning. Through the national qualification in leadership & management in primary PE we often discuss how to advocate the wider role of PE (PESSPA) in the school & how to gain shared efficacy for its importance to the whole child, placing PE at the heart of the school. This has included suggesting alignment with the whole school development priorities – how can PE contribute? The vast majority of schools include a development priority linked to literacy.

I have looked at this approach for several years now & through our CPD have been extolling the links between literacy & gymnastics – from simple vocabulary to sentence construction & SPaG. When teaching learners there is nothing more satisfying than watching totally immersed & engaged pupils working hard on their sequences & not wanting to stop when you have to bring the lesson to its conclusion & cool-down. This is what led me back to the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on ‘Flow’. He is best known for ‘Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience’, through which he outlines his theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of ‘flow’ – a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand & the situation. It is a state in which nothing else seems to matter, time flies by. It is a state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what they are doing. He advocates that we are often at our most fulfilled, happiest & productive when in this state of ‘flow’.

Developing my thoughts & practice over time I have looked at how the two can align when teaching gymnastics, which is often an area of anxiety & concern for many teachers. It is one which I spend an inordinate about of my time supporting. I combined this with a personal frustration that often pupils never get to really produce & show high quality, practiced, reviewed & linked sequences as they are encouraged through organisational models to show a ‘sequence’ which they have just produced on a  piece of apparatus during a 7 minute rotation with another group of pupils etc. The link to literacy & in particular writing was something which developed from conversations with others especially my wife, a primary teacher & KS1 lead. We have shared this approach widely over the past 5 years through our Gymnastics Large Apparatus Twilight CPD course, which is by far our most requested session.

In practice what I now encourage is staff to consider linking literacy with gymnastics to help create a ‘flow’ situation where possible. Linking vocabulary & having this visually displayed, emphasised through the teaching is a simple step but we have developed the concept into talking in & sharing the language of literacy. Pupils create a ‘movement sentence’ or ‘gymnastics sentence’ which allows them to link sentence construction concepts with & through movement. The most basic of this is what every sentence starts with / ends with & how this can mirror with starting & finishing positions in the ‘sequence’. Other easily grasped concepts are nouns, adjectives, adverbs etc. & how the parts of the sentence can be interpreted through the five basic body actions / movements & dynamics e.g. rolling – slowly, jumping with a turn, travel & body shape to make the jump more aesthetic & interesting.

However, for me the key is all about ‘editing’, developing the sentence, its complexity, its meaning & its depth. Trying to ensure that the planned, progressive & sequenced learning in gymnastics is shown through building ‘brick by brick’ in each lesson so that the lessons flow & link each time helps the pupil to build a movement sentence where this lessons objectives link with the previous one so that new work can be added to the old to enrich, extend the movement sentence so far. Pupils may have chosen three ways of travelling that link & flow together, showing them in a simple ‘routine’ towards the end of a lesson. Next lesson they may look at adding to this by exploring tempo – fast, medium, slow & how the movements that they did last week can be adapted to incorporate contrasts in speed (or height – high, medium, low) for example. The following lesson the teacher might be wanting to develop an aspect of ‘Turn’ so pupils look at & explore various rolls, or jumps & turning; can they then ‘edit’ their sentence so far to think about where to include a turn, linking it so as to ensure that their movement sentence still flows. Building their movement sentence into a longer & more refined, practiced & aesthetic piece of work which is completely of their own work.

I have found that building the movement sentence in this way engages pupils in making decisions for themselves, being creative, collaborative, communicating & above all practicing & refining their movements often in a state of ‘Flow’. Pupils are immersed in creating their work as they are solving problems, being creative, trialling where best to add new ideas, actions etc. They are constantly encouraged to review their own & others work, providing feedback, sharing iPads to help visually feedback, analyse etc. Low level disruptive behaviour is reduced whilst learning & engagement is optimised. Pupils feel that they are ‘building’ something through this approach, less anxious about ‘showing’ what they are doing as this is mostly just with another pair – their ‘performance buddy’ so to speak aligning with other peer assessment concepts.

The teacher is free to observe, to interact, to feedback, to support & to adapt the lesson to suit the needs of the pupils. Assessment can be simplified. Progression is planned & each new lesson always allows time to practice, refine & consolidate the work done previously as the movement sentence(s) grow & extend. More able pupils can be encouraged to greater depths in their learning whilst the teacher can support others by adapting their learning to suit their needs.

I believe that the alignment that this approach can have with mental well-being, ‘happiness’ & the potential of intrinsic motivation through Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘Flow’ make this an ideal time to share this approach wider.

If you are interested in exploring this point of view further, then do get in touch. We embed this in our CPD for teaching & learning in & through gymnastics which to date has been incredibly well received by primary staff – “It makes a real change for us to consider how PE can support Literacy in our school, love the concept of ‘editing’ & reinforcing sentence construction, SPaG through Gymnastics!”


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