Inclusion in physical educationAfter nearly 20 years in the profession, working as a teacher, consultant, coach, and supervisor, I've come to a crossroads on how I view the overall effectiveness of inclusion. The common position accepted on inclusion is that the minority (students with disabilities) are best served when included into the general physical education programs. This position makes the basic assumption that all the students without disabilities are somehow working at a greater skill level and that peer modeling will enhance the quality and quantity of learning experiences for all students.

Central to this discussion is a simple premise: students with disabilities are better off in an environment where the traditional performance outcome and style are established and reinforced. That traditional performance outcome is defined as "excellence" or “working at or above grade level” following a typical approach. Also central to this discussion is the premise that the minority of learners in an inclusive setting are ones with low level/emerging skills, special needs, and other fitness constraints, while the majority represents students who are “working at or above grade level or “gifted athletes.”

Is the minority the majority?

Based on my observations as a consultant, inclusion is achieved in many physical education classes by encouraging students with disabilities to follow the cues and routines of classmates without disabilities. For example, a child with Down syndrome or autism might be told to watch his peers as they kick a soccer ball into a net. A peer might even be assigned to the child to give extra encouragement and feedback.

On the surface, this example  appears to be a model inclusive physical education program. In fact, most schools strive for that level of success. But I do not believe that the student with a disability in this scenario has developed a long lasting and authentic degree of success. Following traditional supports (peer modeling and peer cueing) the students with special needs must adopt what is perceived to be a higher level of technique and traditional method of skill practice. This often creates a “glass ceiling” where students may be limited because their skill level.

Furthermore, I would argue that in some cases the majority of students, not just those with disabilities need a non-traditional approach. Most physical education classes comprise three basic levels of learner: high --those who knew the skill before entering the room, emerging --those who understand the movement concept but need to develop a deeper understanding via authentic play practice, and low--those who need to understand the basic movement concept and require significant skill practice.

For example, in the typical soccer unit, game play would follow skills instruction and practice. Often, a student’s skills break down during the actual game. Did the breakdown occur because the game was too fast, too complex, or generally too congested? Or, perhaps there was a breakdown in instruction. If two-thirds of an average class is on the lower to emerging skill level, our goal should be to keep the high level learners engaged and challenged, not to ask the majority (low and emerging groups as well as children with disabilities) to conform to the higher achievers.

If skills and activities were taught with attention toward creating levels of play instead of  excellence of play, then greater and longer lasting social/recreational opportunities would indicate a more authentic state of inclusion. Creating an effective inclusive setting means examining who the learners are (what level they are working at), what the students value (which parts of the game they identify with), and which parts of their personalities can be infused into the activity. In addition, if skill instruction was designed more around the nature of the student’s energy level (how active he or she is), and around the nature of his or her social interaction style (how communicative he or she is) then teachers would have more teaching tools to apply.

Encourage communication and an exchange of ideas

Prior to the start of the third-grade soccer unit, give the students a brief overview and have them answer the following questions:

  1. Would you like to run and chase (being a scorer) or stay in one area (being a defender or goalie)?
  2. Other than a soccer ball, what object would be fun to use in the game?
  3. Which movie do you like better, “Shrek” or “Star Wars”?
  4. Would you rather stay with a partner or play alone?

The first question addresses the energy level of the player while the second one delves into the creative possibilities of the game. Question three addresses which of the player’s preferences might be included in the activity and the last question determines the communicative preference of the player. Now this information can be used to design the lesson.

First, with input from the students, describe the objective of the game of soccer. Then ask if the rules and/or design of the game can be changed to make it more fun. Create stations that include dribbling a balloon, kicking a two-liter soda bottle, and using a pillow to block soccer balls being shot at a goal. When each student has visited every  station, have them their favorite area with a partner and consider how they could be improved.

For the mid-unit lesson, students are asked to select Team Shrek or Team Star Wars. Encourage them to act out a character from the movie during the game. Explain that the lesson will jump back and forth between game play and skill practice several times. Think of this process as the instructional equivalent to “whole/part” teaching approach as you assess the students’ strengths and weaknesses. Many students will appreciate the opportunity to revisit skill practice.

When it’s time for game play, place students in areas that allow them to run and chase or defend a specific zone. Use a large beach ball for the first five minutes of play, and encourage students to play alongside a partner if they wish. After five minutes, switch to a soccer-size NERF ball or a smaller beach ball. This break in play can also serve as an opportunity for students to suggest new equipment or components to the game. They can also talk to a partner about their favorite area on the field and where else they might want to play.

At this point in the lesson, you can make the changes suggested by the students or return to skills practice. By allowing all players to try various positions/roles, you have maximized motivation and creativity. Persuade students to choose roles where they excel. For example, if an energetic student is successful as a defending chaser, then encourage that student to maintain that role. If a student demonstrates low energy/rate of play, encourage that child to pair up with another student who may not have the interest or skill base to dominate the ball. In order to engage students with greater skills, ask them to play using their less dominant sides.

This lesson has all the critical elements needed for success: creativity, inclusion and giving students choices. Communication between partners was encouraged, just as in traditional soccer, and student preferences were integrated  into the game play by allowing for themed team names. The model allows the teacher to increase the pace and/or difficulty of the game. Those students with greater ability competed without dominating the entire game. Finally, the true majority of the class (emerging and low levels), was allowed to be equally successful as the players who had greater traditional skills. By providing various opportunities for students to bring their individual strengths into the game, the physical education teacher has achieved true inclusion.

The “mixed bag” approach

One of the major hurdles to an authentic inclusive program is the lack of “inclusive progression” with instruction. A typical unit follows the traditional progression of teaching individual skill, followed by small group-play activities, and culminating in a group activity that greatly resembles the traditional game. The problem with this approach is that it establishes a skill threshold that students must pass through in order to be successful at the next level.

Simply put, if a student cannot dribble the basketball, then he/she would not be successful in a game of dribble tag where students are asked to dribble a ball as they avoid being tagged.

Compare the above scenario to a “mixed bag” approach where all students will have a chance to participate in every activity. This is because play is built around the goal of the game instead of playing to predetermined, traditional rules. Simply put, the game is crafted around the way that  students see the game.

 The “mixed bag” approach follows the same format at the beginning of any unit:

Step 1: Divide the students into small groups of four to seven, and then present each group with the name of a traditional game written on a piece of paper along with a bag of miscellaneous equipment. The bag should contain some but not all of the equipment related to the game as well as equipment that is not related to the game. For example, the group receives the name “basketball” on the paper, and the bag is filled with 10 cones, two basketballs, three hula hoops, a small bucket, and a scooter board.

Step 2: Each group is directed to create the game written on the paper making sure to use all the equipment in the bag and making sure that each person is responsible for one piece of equipment during game play.

Step 3: Each group is allowed to demonstrate how it created a version of the game, and how the goal of the game was still accomplished. In addition, students must identify who does what and why that person was chosen for that specific role.

Step 4: Select a team that followed the rules and have those students demonstrate the game again so the rest of the class can play that game for the day.

One of the main goals of this approach is to create a process where students who are at a lower skill level are no longer bound by the traditional rules of play. By allowing students to change  how a ball travels, its direction and speed, all learners get the same opportunity to create a traditional experience into one that establishes levels of play within the same game. For example, a more skilled player might want to add that he or she has to perform a short shuttle run dropping a bean bag into a hula hoop before shooting. Although this is not part of the traditional game, it does build the vital skill of working off the ball and making short sprints to gain a shooting opportunity. A student with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair might use the same hula hoop, but instead remain in the hoop where he or she would be able to shoot or pass in a safe zone.

The “mixed bag” approach allows students to create an authentic inclusive process because it structures success around students learning to work together in a creative manner. The goal of basketball is to transport an object from one spot to another and then shoot the object into another object. The rest of the rules are completely up to the players or the league. Most games are modified based upon who is playing and where the game is played. In addition, this process allows practice or drill scenarios to be built into the game so learners gain a deeper understanding of the importance of practice over play.

I have grown more comfortable letting students take the lead in learning rather than believing I must tell them or show them the way. If this strategy keeps more students involved and interested in my physical education class, then I know I’m on the right track.

Matt Schinelli is a health and physical education teacher at Burnett Hill Elementary School in Livingston Township. He earned a master’s of education in adapted physical education at the University of Virginia and is an adjunct faculty member at Montclair State University. In 2003, he won the Thomas Vodola Teacher of the Year Award from the N.J. Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (NJAHPERD).

Schinelli founded the N.J. Adapted Physical Education Online Resource,, to help meet the growing demand for quality professional staff development services in the area of working with individuals with disabilities.

Contact Schinelli at