How to Teach Sports as Culture in PE

Physical education and sports go hand in hand. Instructors introduce sports specific movement patterns, the rules of the game, and different strategies for success. If those students are lucky, they get lots of variety from sports that are popular in the United States. If the students are incredibly lucky, they will get lots of variety from sports from across the globe. It should be a goal (no pun intended) of the Montessori PE instructor to incorporate sports from around the world to satisfy the mission of making our students global citizens.

I think most people would agree that it is a good idea to expose students to a (global) variety of sports. However, I think we can do even better than just exposure. Our job should be to show how sport directly links to culture of any society. We can gain unique insights about a culture through the sport(s) that they play, because those sports highlight what is important to that cultures identity. Since culture is a fundamental need of humans, then sport, which is a component of culture, may be a fundamental need as well. Sport can be linked to humans tens of thousands of years ago, and every major society practiced sport in one way or another. We want our students to be able to examine a sport and the people who played it and make connections to that societies beliefs, culture, geography, and history.

How can sport give us insights about a civilization? With close examination, sport can reveal information about a society no other avenue can. Sport is often a symbol or metaphor for some great truth about religious or cultural beliefs. When we examine and learn about another culture (especially from the ancient past), we tend to think of old customs as barbaric or unnecessary. However, there is fault in using our modern perspective, our own cultural lens, as the barometer for societies advancement. A sport like bullfighting from the outsider’s perspective would be the epitome of barbarism. However, to that society, it is a reenactment of good versus evil, humans over nature, and has roots in that society that are thousands of years old. When we try and explain a difficult subject, we tend to only use our societies standards, which becomes a reduction of the truth. Any game/sport, music, art, and drama of a civilization express the way that a civilization thinks about the nature of reality and the truths of life. The stories told through culture do not have to be true, but they do explain a truth that a civilization believes.

We want our students to think about the origins and meaning of sports throughout culture, and to do so they need to ask questions. Through HOTS (higher order thinking) questions, our students can use their powers of investigation and empathy to truly understand a people. When they are in P.E., we will use sport to reveal a unique aspect of culture. Here are some questions for your students to think about as they begin the study of a civilization:

What civilization traits are important to them?

  1. Individual strength and power (one vs. one sport, individual competition to show strength, speed, and power)

  2. Team unity (team vs. team sport)

  3. Use of tools and value of craftsmanship (hockey, lacrosse, sports that use implements)

What cultures are integrated in the society?

  1. What parts of the world did the people come from? What influences did they bring with them?

  2. Were the people ever colonized or invaded?

What natural features are in the area that creates a unique environment for sport?

  1. Mountains promote hiking and possibly skiing (if it’s cold enough)

  2. Ocean coastlines and water features promote surfing, boating, and certain types of sport fishing

What is the climate of the area?

  1. Climate influences the type of clothing and equipment that is worn

  2. Cold climates promote ice sports and indoor sports

  3. Warm climates promote outdoor sports

  4. Large landmasses can have large-scale sports; smaller islands have less space

What materials and resources are available to them?

  1. Depending on the era, certain materials like metal and plastic would not have been available. Is there an evolution of the materials used in the sport to more modern versions? Early versions could be made of bone, wood, etc.

  2. Are animals used in any of your sports? Are those animals native to your island?

    1. Horses (racing or polo)

    2. Bulls (bullfighting)

What sports were played long ago are still played today?

  1. Have they evolved in rules, equipment, and strategy?

Is there any crossover between the other arts and sport?

  1. Is there accompanying music that is completely integrated into the sport itself (ritualistic like Muay Thai Sarama)?

  2. Are there special movements or a dance that must happen before a game (Hakka or sumo ritual)?

  3. Is there an element of theater before the sport (religious or entertainment)?

  4. Are there specific forms of art used in the sport (ceremonial dress or makeup, tattoos, uniform styles)

Is there a certain mythological person, (religious) story or myth that made the sport popular?

  1. Is the sport related to religion? If so, how?

  2. Is it reenacting a story from sacred text?

  3. Is it meant for sacrifice?

  4. Is it to honor Gods or ancestors?

  5. Is it meant to secure a leader as a God?

Does the sport have any role in military training in the past or present? If so, how?

  1. Hand to hand combat

  2. Weapons combat

  3. Squadron training

Was this sport played primarily for the entertainment of others?

  1. Was it like the Roman coliseum or today's professional sports

As your lower elementary students do their continents study, they can investigate the different sports that originated in those places. Some upper elementary students not only study countries and ancient civilization as part of the culture curriculum, but also create an “Imaginary Island.” The Imaginary Island lesson is the perfect lesson to encourage your students to do a deep dive into geography and culture (and sport). My school is starting their Imaginary Island study now, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they create!