Do You Call Them Games or Activities?

By: Mark Banasiak @MoreThanGym

I was recently involved in a discussion as to whether we should use the word GAME or ACTIVITY in our profession. When you look up their definitions, they are quite similar. Both have multiple definitions with one or more focusing on engagement in physical movement. To me, the word GAME carries too much baggage with it. That is, it carries the idea that all we do is PLAY. I wholeheartedly believe that unstructured play is important for proper child development; however, that is not what occurs in a high quality physical education classroom. We teach our students to PARTICIPATE in ACTIVITIES that are both structured and purposeful.

Because of this distinction, I try my best not to use the word GAME during my instruction. Similarly, I try not to use the word PLAY unless I am encouraging them to be active at home or at recess.

When teaching, I try to use the words PARTICIPATE and ACTIVITY. For example, you may hear me say, “Today, you will participate in the activity Crab Tag (click on it for a free lesson plan).” I know they are just words, but there is a distinction between them in my mind. I think using the words ACTIVITY and PARTICIPATE helps to elevate our profession versus perpetuating the old belief that all we do in the gym is PLAY GAMES.

What do you think? Does using the word ACTIVITY versus GAME or PARTICIPATE versus PLAY really matter?

I love teaching large group activities. I think they are a crucial part of a well-rounded physical education curriculum. Most of the time, I use them as culminating activities at the end of a unit, as a break between units, or on days immediately proceeding/following long weekends/breaks.

When I am selecting or creating large group activities, I look for ones that (in no particular order):

  • Maximize participation and have minimal wait time.
  • Have no end point or prevent time from being wasted while “resetting” equipment.
  • Provide for smooth transitions when taking turns, changing positions, or alternating roles (e.g., offense/defense).
  • Require the students to think resulting in a higher level of student engagement.
  • Call for the students to work with and help one another.
  • Challenge the students to be better by allowing opportunities to both build on successes and learn from mistakes. More importantly, they quickly get another chance to try again.
  • Allow students to engage in healthy competition.
  • Provide an opportunity to apply skills they have recently acquired or review skills they have previously learned.
  • Are fun and exciting.
  • Get their heart rate up.
  • Have multiple rounds.
  • Contain minimal rules.
  • Can be easily replicated during another class.

What criteria do you use when selecting large group activities and deciding if they are appropriate for your class?

What are the large group activities that you cannot wait to teach? I mean the ones that get you giddy. You know the feeling…the same excitement you get when you inflate a brand new playground ball.   These are the activities that you have to stop and remind yourself that you are the teacher because you get so involved in participating with the students.

For me, it is an activity called Treasure Island (click on it for a free lesson plan). This is a high energy and invasion type of activity. It requires the students to work together, get their heart rate up, and have fun. My students love it! In fact, my son wanted to do it at his birthday party.

The idea for this activity came from a session I attended at the annual Share the Wealth PE Conference. This particular session was led by faculty and students from the PE Teacher Education Program at Auburn University and focused on invasion activities. I saw something during that session that created a spark. My brain started rolling, and I eventually created this large group activity. When the students see the scooters placed along the wall and watch me dump the half cones in the center circle, they know they will soon be visiting Treasure Island!

On an interesting side note, I do not get the scooters out until the last PE class in December. Up until that point, the scooters are stacked in the back of the equipment room. This withholding of equipment is intentional. On a day when the students are otherwise wound up and excited, it encourages them to stay on-task if they want to use a scooter (rather than sit in time out). It also creates excitement at the halfway point of the year because now a new door of large group scooter activities has been opened for the second semester.

What is your favorite large group activity? 

I love creating and learning new large group activities. I am always trying something out. A lot of times, I see one that doesn’t quite work for me. In that case, I tweak it just enough to make it work for my program and my students. I encourage you to do the same.

Here are a couple more of my favorite large group activities (click on them for a free lesson plan):

Put a Ring on My Finger

Balance the Bagel

If you are interested in even more of my favorite large group activities, then please check out my eBook (I Teach More Than Gym – Vol. I: A Collection of Elementary PE Activities). It contains 30+ complete lesson plans with diagrams. It is currently available for only $10.

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5 thoughts on “Do You Call Them Games or Activities?

  1. I too am aware of the difference of games vs. activities. The question is does changing the word game change the activity? You used crab tag as an example. If you called it a game would the rules have changed? If not, IMO is it semantics. It would affect change in the PE world but not the world outside PE. Parents, teachers and the like would still call it a game. Its the same as when people call me a gym teacher. If I correct them and say I teach Physical Education they just sorta get the impression that it is some new PC thing and they just go with it while I am there then go back to calling it gym class because that is what it is to them.

    I have gotten into many discussions about the minutia of PE such as to change clothes or not to change for class. In the end it doesn’t make a big difference in the acquisition of skills in my opinion.

    What I don’t think gets addressed enough are the details of the curriculum. Sure each state has their own standards and curriculum but they are usually very vague which then leaves it up to each teacher as to what and how to teach. If we want to be considered a “class” and not just glorified recess then we must adopt some classroom behaviors.


  2. Sorry I accidentally hit post before I was done.

    Some classroom behaviors we need to look at.
    1. A more specific curriculum. “Ensuring that children adopt an active lifestyle” is not specific enough.
    2. Each “activity” should have a specific physical outcome attached to it. For example, if I am teaching how to throw a ball properly, then whatever activity we do should solely focus on the throw.
    3. Smaller group activities should trump sports. It is hard to suggest that PE classes only do games when the curriculum map of a middle or high school and even elementary schools, are only sport units. Participating in a partner throwing game is different that playing football or softball. If you are teaching throwing and you do a partner or small group game I bet you that students will have a better understanding of the “why are we doing this question” than teaching a sport that requires more than just throwing skills.
    4. Cooperative learning and team sports are not necessarily for just working together as a team to get something done. These are teaching methods to help illustrate the skill being taught. You have partner activities to reinforce the skill. You can make a game out of it but the skill has to be the focus of the lesson and not the game or activity.
    5. We need to know that the “athletes” in our PE classes are the minorities. The majority of kids will take a long time to learn balance, kick, punt, throw, and the fitness concepts. When we teach only sports we are teaching to the minority and leaving the majority to fend for itself. We need to flip that around. That can be very daunting to a PE teacher. My belief of that is based on the fact that probably 99% of all PE teachers were an athlete of some sort in their day, whether they were on a varsity sport in high school or even played a sport in college. By their have being an elite athlete themselves many are not equipped with the knowledge to help those who don’t know how to perform the sports in the curriculum. If teachers approached teaching PE with the assumption that seventy percent of their students will need specific direct instruction to learn skills, how might that change their curriculum. It might include more variety, differentiation, and sensitivity.

    If we teacher like classroom teachers, whether or not we call something a game or activity won’t matter. Kids will understand it is the skill they are working on rather than learning the rules of a game.


    1. Andrew – Your thoughts are VERY insightful. Thank you for sharing!

      I am especially drawn to point #5. Please check out my other blog posts (see below) as I share how I plan my instruction (lessons). I also share how I differentiate instruction, use assessment as a motivator, and explain my thoughts on teaching each child versus teaching the skill.

      How Do You Plan Your Units of Instruction?

      Can Assessment Be Used as a Motivator?


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