Observation in the Montessori PE Environment (Part 2)

In the first part of this series, we outlined the importance of observation in the Montessori classroom, as well as a simplified explanation of how to organize one’s observation notes. If you have not read part one and are interested, you can find the article here. In part two, we are going to look at what we should be observing in the Montessori PE environment, as well as the necessary questions we should ask ourselves to make effective changes. The first area of observation in the Montessori PE environment should be the mechanics of the game.

Before we get into game mechanics, I want to stress that we should use these observation tools whether you are using lessons from Montessori Physical Education Volume 1 © or you are creating the games yourself. An advantage to purchasing lessons from Montessori Physical Education is that I have designed games with all of these observation points in mind, and tested them time and again using these same observation metrics. Another big advantage is the time you may save, especially if you want your physical education lessons to be integrated with the Montessori curriculum (as well as many general curriculum topics). However, if you have the time and/or interest in creating your own games, I encourage you to use these observation metrics to make your games are the best they can be.

Game mechanics, or how your game functions properly within it’s set of rules, is incredibly important for fun and meaningful lessons. This can be the most difficult part of creating games because we either want to create new, novel, and unique games from scratch; or use popular games that already exist, which can be retooled for our purposes of Montessori Classroom integration. Refurbishing already existing games is easier to do and is more user friendly for the students because they will already know many of the rules to the game. However, some concepts and topics from the classroom require brand new game mechanics, but it is especially rewarding to see that new game work properly. To put it simply, game mechanics make or break your Montessori PE lesson. Here are topics on game mechanics that you should be observing in the Montessori PE classroom as well as corresponding questions to ask yourself.

What are the rules to the game?

Creating rules for the game comes in two phases if the game was made from scratch. The original creation of the rules is the first part, but there is more to come. When the game is first introduced to the students, they will ask questions about the rules; many times questions you did not consider. You will have to give them an answer on the spot, but that could change after observing the effects of that answer especially if your answer did not facilitate optimal gameplay (sometimes you get lucky though). The students will do things that we did not expect in the game, which again will force us to create rules to facilitate the gameplay we intended. “If the ball goes here, what happens now?” “If a player does this, is that legal?” These questions and observations will pop up as you watch the game in action.

What materials are we using for the game?

When you design a game, you typically make the game with settings and materials that you have available. This was the case for myself, but I know that not everyone would have access to everything I have. Therefore, when I can, I make several recommendations for alternative settings or materials. You may end up making changes based on other observations. For example, initially you decided to use a basketball, but after observation, you noticed your students needed a smaller ball to properly throw or catch because the basketball was too big. Making this change of materials would help facilitate gameplay for the better because more students could adequately participate. Another useful function materials can serve is increasing organization (especially with younger participants). Having cones, rubber disc dots, or hula-hoops to show player placement or create small boundaries can vastly improve gameplay in certain situations.

Does the game provide maximum playing time for the most students possible?

We only have a limited amount of time with the students per week, so we want every student to get as much experience as they can with the game they are playing. This means the game should be able to accommodate the whole class the whole gym period. Designing games that are cyclical in nature is always superior to having substitutions or “outs.” If a single game cannot accommodate all students because too many players would muddle the gameplay, then splitting the playing area in halves or quadrants and having simultaneous games is a good option for giving our students more chances to participate. It goes without saying that the need for organization (and maybe additional adults) increases when simultaneous games are happening at once.

Is the game fun?

This is more of a subjective measure, but the instructor must honestly observe whether the students are having fun. If they are not, it does not matter how amazing the lesson is for teaching concepts in the classroom, the students will not learn anything new. Fair or not, there is an expectation that gym class is supposed to be fun, and if the game is not fun, it is not worth playing.

Does the game provide practice for basic (or complex) motor movements?

While we are striving for integrating the Montessori curriculum into PE, we cannot ignore the physical education component for the sake of integration. The games that students play must give them practice with basic motor movements so they can begin to master moving and controlling their body in space. There are lots of fun games that help teach classroom concepts, but to work well for PE, must be active and physical, otherwise they do not belong in PE (but may work as an alternative lesson format, like simulations, for the classroom). Many schools must also meet national and state standards in PE, which gives our students exposure and practice to coordinated movement and exercise. We cannot forget the physical in physical education.

Does the game reflect the classroom concept effectively?

One of the hallmarks of Montessori Physical Education is that it integrates with the classroom curriculum. It is meant to either preview lessons, or reinforces concepts and vocabulary. If the game is not doing that, it might be a fun great game, but it is not authentic to Montessori anymore. Montessori Physical Education earns its authenticity because of its integration with the classroom. Montessori Physical Education lessons can certainly be taught in the traditional PE class, but they were specifically made for Montessori schools.

One of my ongoing missions within Montessori Physical Education is to conduct additional research that demonstrates how these lessons support the students with their classroom material. I have already conducted research that showed that MPE lessons did improve vocabulary and concept retention (especially with younger students), which you can read more about here. I will continue this research with additional lessons to see what needs to be tweaked and changed to fulfill this mission. In a few months, I will be testing a lesson that may help students with their math facts.

Does the game support a variety of ages and abilities?

The Montessori classroom is multi-age, and there is a good chance that your Montessori PE class also will be multi-age. Because there is a mix of young and older students, the game mechanics need to accommodate for various age groups. Children do their best when they are trying something just a little bit harder than their current ability. Something that is too easy will be boring, something that is too hard will be too frustrating and the child will most likely quit. One way to address this is to play a game with multiple levels of depth and strategy. A game can be very easy to play initially (which is good for younger students), but can have various strategies for success, which will appeal to the older students. I have found that when games have a component of “risk vs. reward” to them, the students really enjoy them. I will go into more detail about this topic in a future blog post. Another way to include multiple ages is provide multiple ways to accomplish a task that are tailored to the abilities of the student. For example, if a first grader is not strong enough to shoot a basketball in the hoop, there needs to be an alternative option for them, like a bucket at a lower height. This can also be done by having components of the game that only a certain age can use or manipulate. For example, if the students are playing capture the flag, use three flags, one for first grade, one for second, and one for third. The game Egg Thief is a good example of how the game mechanic encourages all ages to participate because a team cannot win without using all ages effectively.

In the third part of this series, we will look at how we should be observing team dynamics within the Montessori PE classroom.