Before getting to the point, it’s important to note that I don’t wish to use this post to delve into the safe handling and layout of Gymnastics apparatus as guidance in this area is given in afPE’s “Safe Practice in PE, School Sport and Physical Activity” 2020 publication. I will say, however, that it is encouraged that Gymnastics apparatus is used for the purpose it was designed. For me though, this doesn’t translate into only using boxes for vaulting, beams for balancing and wall bars for climbing etc. but more that apparatus must be set up in a way that promotes safe exploration. As an example and food for thought in this area, I would question whether turning a bench upside down to challenge the more physically able with a narrower surface area on which to balance is a safe or appropriate way to use the equipment in relation to it’s design.
Throughout my coaching, teaching, teacher training and writing on the topic of Educational Gymnastics, I advocate the use of Gymnastics/movement themes or cross-curricular topics to promote inclusivity and stimulate creative development of movement vocabulary in curricular and extra-curricular Gymnastics. Having created and developed floor work related to a theme or topic in a curriculum unit’s introductory lessons, pupils can be challenged to adapt those floor skills to involve low/small items of apparatus such as benches, floor beams, low agility tables and box tops. Thereafter, high/large apparatus such as full size boxes, high agility tables, frames and fixed apparatus along with any attachments like ladders or bars can be introduced. To facilitate learning, it’s important that teachers consider which apparatus items available to them will best promote pupils’ exploration in relation to each unit theme or topic as part of the planning process.
To use the Cambridgeshire SOW for PE Year 2 Ball, Tall and Wall Gymnastics unit as a practical example, through a balance of differentiated whole class skill development activities and creative exploration, pupils spend the initial lessons building a movement vocabulary of static and moving actions relevant to their individual physical ability showing tuck, straight and wide shapes on the floor. This reaches a point where pupils are in a position to each select (and potentially link) their favourite ball, tall and wall shape action from a wider repertoire of skills they can now perform with good quality. On introducing the apparatus, pupils are then invited to work in free flow around the layout to investigate how they can involve each piece of equipment in the performance of their selected ball, tall and wall shape action. To encourage a variety of responses, teachers can input or, better still, guide the discovery of key words such as through, under, over, across, obstacle, hang, around, against, swing, climb, on (whole or part body), along, mount, dismount (the list of potential key words is infinitely long and pupils can be challenged to add to it but it’s also important to note that there may be occasions where key words need to be carefully selected by the teacher in order to maintain a safe environment and a focus on the unit of work theme). Once pupils have found a range of responses, they can link their favourite way of involving the apparatus in the performance of their ball, tall and wall shape actions into a sequence. The most effective sequences will not be those that incorporate the most complex apparatus skills but more those that demonstrate involvement of a range of apparatus in a variety of ways. For example, a pupil who performs a lying straight shape ON a bench followed by a straddle shape sitting AGAINST a wall bar finishing with a bunny hop OVER a low agility table should be seen as functioning at a high level when it comes to apparatus exploration despite including relatively basic actions throughout.
Apparatus exploration doesn’t have to stop with pupils adapting skills they’ve previously created and/or accomplished on the floor – the apparatus itself may also stimulate further exploration, creativity and discussion around a certain theme or topic. In our Year 2 Ball, Tall and Wall unit, for example, maybe the introduction of apparatus will inspire pupils to discover new tuck, straight and wide shape actions that couldn’t be performed on just the floor. Moving onto a KS2 example, pupils exploring the Cambridgeshire SOW for PE Year 4 Principles of Balance unit learn and apply the knowledge that balances are easier to hold if they have many contact points, a large surface area and a low centre of gravity to develop still positions they can control on the floor. They then explore adapting those skills to involve a variety of apparatus but, furthermore, also discuss and identify how the way in which they’ve involved each item of apparatus alters those three Principles of Balance and, therefore, their stability.
To also share a late KS3 example, a group of Secondary PE SCITT trainees I recently worked with decided to develop a series of practical activities around the idea of introducing the Components of Fitness through a Gymnastics unit. As part of this, the group considered how each item of apparatus available to us at the time could be used to develop pupils’ understanding and physical ability in relation to each Component of Fitness. This led to the creation of a sequence covering a range of their most effective ideas including the performance of standing straddle shapes with one leg raised on a box top so as to challenge/extend their flexibility and front support positions performed with either the hands or feet raised onto a bench to lessen or increase the muscular strength required to hold the shape according to each individual’s physical ability.
By exploring the involvement of apparatus from a cross-curricular perspective like in the examples given, teachers can focus success criteria around the pupils’ creativity and/or ability to demonstrate understanding of the theme or topic. In this way, the importance placed on skill complexity is minimised and pupils of all physical abilities have equal access to succeed in Gymnastics lessons involving apparatus. Many of my favourite moments in my 30+ years of Gymnastics delivery have occurred when a child has involved a piece of apparatus in a way that I have not seen before, typically creating an original Gymnastics action in the process. Undoubtedly, therefore, there is a considerable amount of learning and enjoyment to be missed by both the teacher and pupils in Gymnastics lessons where the delivery dictates the apparatus skills and way in which the apparatus is used. If this is an approach you might be used to taking in your delivery of Gymnastics apparatus work, I encourage you to explore the more cross-curricular and creative route going forward and am ready and waiting to hear of any highlights you encounter as a result.