Social skills such as teamwork can be effectively demonstrated and taught using sport. Jody Specht discusses this cross-curricular method

The Bexley School Sports Partnership (SSP) was set up in 2002 with the initial aim of reaching and exceeding the national target of young people taking part in two hours of PE and sport a week. Over time, the remit and focus of the partnership has changed, as we have come to use sport as a tool for making fundamental changes to young people’s lives.

Responding to schools
This came about because schools in the partnership reported that they had many pupils with very poor social skills: they were unable to work as a team or with a partner and could not share with each other.

This led us to set up an adventure-based learning (ABL) programme, which sought to teach the basics of communication and cooperation in a fun and creative manner. Using adventure is a specific technique in experiential learning, where the outcome of the experience is uncertain and may contain physical, social and psychological risks.

Facing risks
Direct participation in action requires us to face our fears of risk. In dealing with challenges, we have the opportunity to turn perceived limitations into abilities and achievements. In the process, we learn a great deal about our relationships with others and ourselves.

Experiential learning is based on people being ‘active and doing’ rather then being ‘passive and done to’. Having the chance to practice the skills they are learning leads to them being more likely to maintain these changes in other areas of their lives.

Learning becomes ‘experiential’ when a person is:

  • involved in an activity
  • looks back at it critically
  • determines what was useful
  • uses this information to perform another activity.

Providing an experience alone does not create ‘experiential learning’. The activity comes first. The learning comes from the thoughts and ideas created as a result of the experience.

The project uses adventure and experiential learning activities to engage pupils, but the learning takes place through pupils:

  • experiencing success
  • evaluating their successes (and failures)
  • transferring these skills to the next activities.

The ultimate aim is that young people will transfer these skills back to the classroom.

Programme
Each programme lasts approximately six weeks, with group sizes ranging from six to 22. Schools select the young people they wish us to work with, and inform us of each child’s developmental needs.

The students are not led to see the teacher as the ultimate source of all answers and wisdom. Instead, they learn from each other, with the facilitator providing guidance when needed.
The facilitator aims to gradually give over control to the group. A leader of a newly formed group will be relied upon by the group for leadership. This allows the leader to model behaviour, set the tone of the session and gain respect. As a group develops, the facilitator’s role changes, allowing students the opportunity to become leaders themselves.

Meeting individual needs
Adventure-based learning is effective in making a difference to pupils’ social and emotional needs because it is not an area of school life where they are seen to fail. The programme ensures it meets individual needs, engaging pupils actively in their own personal development. The majority of the activities are active, so pupils can feel and see their success instantly, thus gaining instant gratification. Pupils develop the skills to understand that they can achieve anything, but they need to apply the right techniques at an appropriate time. For example, they cannot achieve a group task if they do not think of others or achieve a blindfolded task if they cannot trust and communicate effectively.

More confidence
The programme has played a part in breaking down the barriers faced by some pupils when accessing classroom learning. Facilitators have observed that pupils have become: 

  • more supportive of their peers
  • more confident in communicating their ideas
  • less aggressive.

We also have reports from classroom teachers of pupils:

  • taking more pride in their work
  • shouting and arguing less in class
  • behaving in less violent and attention-seeking ways
  • not giving up with frustration if they do not succeed first time.

The next step for the partnership is to train more school staff in facilitating adventure-based learning. We will evolve the programme continually, allowing more young people to develop their social and emotional learning through physical education.

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