Play With Purpose: An Introduction to the Game Sense Approach

Internationally, physical education has been critiqued as lacking in educative intent, direction or purpose. The critique stems from two observations of the common practice of PE:

  1. Lessons are overly focussed on movement compliance in performance environments where the teacher predominantly uses distinctly directive teaching- in other words, the “teacher says” and the students copy;
  2. Multi-activity program design where students progress through a series of movement experiences without time to develop competency or mastery in the units of work, and where there is no obvious connection or teaching for transfer of concepts and ideas from one unit to the next.

Many students consequently learn what they can’t do in PE rather than what is possible, there is a focus on being physical rather than the educative intent of learning to be physical and understanding movement, and PE and can inadvertently become talent identification rather than competency development.

During the 1980’s, the application of learning theory to PE led to the development of pedagogical approaches emphasizing the cognitive dimension of movement in response to the persistent claims that many children learnt little of substance or relevance in PE due to the common directive pedagogy and multi-activity curriculum. Although it had long been recognized that to be physically educated involves learning in the cognitive as well as physical and social-emotional domains, claims to cognitive engagement in PE were often more rhetorical than reality. Moves from ‘objectives’ based curriculum to standards and outcomes based curriculum brought further attention to the cognitive domain of learning in PE as student learning outcomes were framed using words like, ‘reflect’, ‘analyze’ and ‘design’.

One of the pedagogical approaches bringing attention to the cognitive dimensions of game and sport learning was the Game Sense approach. Developed in Australia from 1994-1996 by the Australian Sports Commission together with Rod Thorpe, it included the ‘pedagogical toolkit’ of Teaching games for Understanding (TGfU). This pedagogical toolkit includes:

  • Guided inquiry through player problem solving and teacher use of well-considered and targeted questioning
  • Game simplification to represent the tactical logic of the game at the developmental readiness of the learner
  • Modification of game and player constraints (such as rules, boundaries of play, playing implements etc) to focus, shape and direct learning and progress learning
  • Thematic classification of games into Net/Court, Target, Invasion and Striking/Fielding games based on similarity in principles of play.

The Game Sense approach has similar features to TGfU, but it is not TGfU. The TGfU literature typically describes a six step learning cycle where game appreciation and tactical understanding precede skill development and game performance, contrasting the common PE directive approach assuming mastery of movement competency before application in game play. TGfU therefore “flipped” the technical before tactical focus of the common directive PE approach, where the game is broken into separate parts that are identified and then refined through drill practice before put into play, to a tactical before technical description.

From the outset, Game Sense teaching and coaching literature described skill as the application of technique in the context of play, therefore tactical, technique and fitness components are taught (at least initially) contextually in a designer game to represent the “whole” and offer means of integrated tactical and technical learning. This association of skill as the use of a technique to effectively solve the problem presented to the player in the momentary configuration of play positions learning to be skilful as an embodied competency comprised of perception, cognition and movement response as interdependent actions: information-movement coupling. This understanding directs PE teaching away from a focus on control of student movement to a focus on movement understanding.

PE teachers have “always” modified games, used teaching by task, student peer and self-check, asked questions to inquire into student learning, or used themes to group content for learning. The ‘pedagogical toolkit’ of the Game Sense approach (and other tactical approaches) was therefore of itself not “new” or innovative. It was the change in focus from directive teaching of prescriptive “textbook” models of performance to guiding and facilitating game learning, and the understanding that skilled performance is inextricably linked to processes of cognition, that was new. Hopper (2003) illustrates this in his depiction of the “anatomy of a game performance”.

Anatomy of a game performance

In the Game Sense approach student learning is driven by refined use of questioning techniques by the teacher, challenging students to think about, and come to ever more sophisticated understanding and use of, the playing dimensions of time, space, application of force, and game flow or tempo. The need for, and meaning of, more sophisticated and complex skill emerges in response to understanding the complexity of play and developing to meet the performance demands of the game as the game is progressed by the teacher from simple to more complex representation over time. This is not to say closed and open drills are avoided in the Game Sense approach. The pedagogical skill of the teacher is knowing when to use pedagogies like drill practice and play practices to improve player game development, just as it is a skill of the teacher to design or select a game purposefully to present concepts and movement models to learn, refine or consolidate. The Game Sense approach is then not about “throwing out the ball and letting students play”. The pedagogical challenge of the Game Sense approach is in the purposeful design or selection, and then shaping of games to focus the play on the concepts and movement responses to be learnt.

Game Sense Teaching Sequence

The distinctive pedagogical feature of the Game Sense approach is the purposeful teacher use of questioning to guide student discovery and then understanding of game performance. The second distinctive feature of a Game Sense approach is purposefully teaching for transfer between games within a category and across game categories. This teaching for transfer acknowledges that while games may look distinctive due to the constraints imposed by rules or the performance environment games within a category (for example: cricket and baseball are both striking/fielding games) “make sense” through common principles of play. For example, the requirement of the batter to place the ball into space away from the fielder to create time for the batter to run without getting out is common to understanding both baseball and cricket. This conceptual understanding of the nature of play can enable students to eventually be able to adapt to problems presented when learning new games or observing new games through the recognition of the similarities in the new to games already known. It is however, the PE teachers responsibility to teach for transfer and not assume the students will make the connections.

I read a lot of Twitter feeds and blogs where teachers claim to be using a TGfU or Game Sense approach, whereas they are really using modified and small-sided games to encourage participation. That is not a Game Sense or TGfU approach. Purposeful design of games as learning contexts, contexts focusing on developing skill performance, with individual, team and class engagement in cognitive, physical and relational “team” game development is a Game Sense approach. The Game Sense approach focus on shaping play and player development through guided inquiry does not detract from physical development or the development of sport “skills”. Teaching through the Game Sense approach recognizes skill as information-in-action. An idealized technique repeated in an open or closed drill is not “skill”. As information-in-action, skill has meaning within the context of the performance environment where the movement occurs – the context is the game.

Finally, teachers using the Game Sense approach understand that sports possess a cognitive complexity – think about the way a tennis player couples information (as perceptual judgment and anticipation – “reading the play”) in a time and space compressed performance context to a complex motor response (like a forehand return) in order to meet a problem (how do I return the ball?) unique to a momentary configuration of play.

Shane Pill was a physical education teacher for 18 years before changing to an academic career in teacher and coach education. He now lectures and researches in physical education and sport pedagogy at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. Shane is author of four resource books on Game Sense teaching and coaching, including Play with Purpose: Game Sense to Sport Literacy, and Play with Purpose: For Fundamental Movement Skill Teaching. Shane can be found at or on Twitter at @Pilly66

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Joey Feith is the founder of Having taught elementary physical education for 10 years, Joey is now focused on helping physical educators grow their confidence and competence as teachers.