Does Student Autonomy Make a Difference?

By: Mark Banasiak @MoreThanGym

At a recent faculty meeting, we discussed student autonomy within the classroom. Specifically, we discussed how autonomy can lead to an increase of intrinsic motivation for the students.

After the meeting, my co-teacher and I started discussing the subject of student autonomy and how it translates to our K-5th grade PE classroom. I shared with him that when I first started teaching my activities and plans were quite rigid and did not allow for much student choice. I further shared that over the years I have learned to be less rigid and shift more choice to the students.

He asked me how I changed. My immediate answer was to tell him that I did not know. However, after thinking about it for a few class periods, I returned to the conversation. I told him the two main factors for me were knowing student names and establishing a mutual respect that is based on trusting the students to do what is right.

During a skill progression, I am right there with the students guiding them as they practice. However, I stand with my “back against the wall” during large group, culminating, and fitness activities. Knowing their names gives me the confidence to stand back, monitor the students, and redirect as needed. These large group, culminating, and fitness activities lend themselves to a multitude of opportunities for student choice.

It has been my experience that students live up to your expectations when coupled with mutual respect. At the beginning of each school year, we talk about mutual respect and how their cooperation leads to more movement time. As expected, there are instances where some students try to take advantage of the autonomy. As a result, those particular students or classes lose the opportunity to have as many choices.

Do students get to have a choice in your gym?

After having this discussion with my colleague, I stopped to reflect on the various ways that I provide for student choice. At first I thought the list would be short; however, I was wrong. Here are a few of them.

Student Choice within Large Group Activities/Skill Development:

  • Activities with Levels – When activities have levels, the students can choose to stay on a level or choose to go to a higher one (i.e., challenge by choice). Some of these activities also allow the students to choose the distance they toss, shoot, or throw from. 
  • Grab Some Letters and Spell Some Words – I simply spread a ton of laminated letters on the gym floor. The students take turns with their partner going to get one or two letters at a time. The K and 1st graders can choose between putting the letters in order or spelling words. Grades 2-5 can choose between spelling the most words, the longest word, or the most unique word. No matter their choice, they are taking turns with their partner running to get some letters.
  • Bucket of Fun – I have been known to take a large tub and place several pieces of equipment inside of them. The students then get into small groups near a bucket. Each student is allowed to select whichever equipment they want to use. I purposely include some equipment we have previously used so they can choose which skills they want to review (e.g., juggling scarves, ping pong paddles/ball, a football, a playground ball, etc). I also like to place some unfamiliar equipment in these buckets to give the students a chance to explore how to use them.
  • Hit the Pin – This is a slight variation from Pin Knockover (by PhysEd Games) that a colleague of mine introduced into our activity lineup. The students can choose to roll or throw the ball. They can also choose to either be on defense and guard a pin or on offense and actively throw/roll the ball at the opponent’s pins.
  • Write a Lesson Plan – This link explains how the students work with their peers to write a lesson plan for a large group activity. The students get to choose their favorite type of activity and which PE equipment to use in the activity. I then teach from their lesson plans!
  • Soccer Dribbling – When we practice soccer dribbling inside the gym, I let the 2nd-5th grade students choose their equipment based on their perceived skill level. They can choose a slightly deflated ball, a regular playground ball, a 5” playground ball, or a tennis ball.
  • Invasion Activities like Treasure Island allow the students to choose their entry point and pathway.
  • Stations – I like to do stations two different ways. First, I may divide the gym into sections and place certain equipment within each section. The students stay within that section for a specified time period. While at that station, they can choose how to use the equipment. For instance, they can use the jump rope to practice individual or partner skills. Second, I may set up a ton of smaller stations where the use of the equipment is specified. The students then choose when and which stations to rotate to.
  • Climbing Rope – I let the students decide if they want to pull themselves up from a lying down position, execute a flexed hang, or climb the rope.
  • Can You Get Your Own Heart Rate Up? – I previously shared one of my favorite lessons where students are tasked with getting their own heart rate up. This activity provides some of the most autonomy of any lesson I teach.
  • Leftover Time – I sometimes get to a stopping point with a few minutes left in class. If so, I allow the students to review their favorite skill from whatever we are currently working on (e.g., basketball dribbling, jumping rope, etc.).
  • Four Square – If a student makes it to the top square, I let them choose if the next round will be “clean and slow,” “fast and low,” or include spins.

Student Choices within Fitness Activities:

I have shared before that we follow a set routine with our gym. When the students enter the gym, they are skipping and can immediately choose who to skip with and whether or not they want to socialize. When it is their turn to walk or jog, they can do the same.

  • Line Leader Fitness – The students follow their line leader and copy whatever exercise they are executing. When it is their turn to be the leader, they get to choose their favorite exercise to execute and have the others follow.
  • Partner Run – Everyone sits with a partner around the edges of the gym. Partner #1 will jog a lap while partner #2 completes their favorite exercise. When #1 returns, they carefully switch places. At the beginning of the year or with the younger grades, I may prescribe which exercise they should complete. As the year progresses, I allow them to choose.
  • Group Leaders – The students are spread out around the gym on their fitness spots (I allow the students to select their own fitness spots at the beginning of the year). I send a small group of students to the middle of the gym, and each one of them can execute their favorite exercise, dance, or movement. The others then choose one leader from that small group to follow.
  • Fitness Friday – The students get to choose whether they walk, complete extra credit jogging, or dance in the middle of the gym.

Student Choice within Transitions:

During transitions, I provide choice within certain parameters.

For instance, have you ever told a large group of students to get into groups of 3 and have a seat? Chaos abounds. Some students will immediately get into a group of three and sit. Two others will join hands and start moving around looking for that perfect third partner. One student will stand alone with two fingers in the air hoping two people will come to them. It takes forever, and you have to eventually step in and physically sort them into groups of three.

I could sort and count them off from the beginning, but that takes too much time with large classes. Additionally, I want the students to be able to choose their partners; therefore, when parameters are established things go smoother.

During my second grade PE class, we have three homerooms with approximately 50 total students in the gym. I tell the students that upon a signal to move, they should get into groups of three at a red heart (I have 17 of them painted on the floor throughout the gym).   I have previously set the expectation that they should not sit down unless they have three people. When the signal is given, I start to slowly count backwards from 10 to 1. The expectation is for them to quickly get into groups of three and be seated. While counting, I monitor for the one or two students who are having trouble finding a group and assist them. All of the students can freely talk while moving to choose their groups until I get to 1. At that point, moving stops, talking ceases, and those who have not gotten into a group will have one chosen for them. If they are frequent flyers, I may have them sit out until after the activity has started.

At the end of class, the students clean up and move to their assigned paw prints. From there, we line up and have closure. The students and I have an agreement that they can have the choice to talk as they clean up and move to their paw prints. After sitting, they can also move over and talk to a neighbor as long as one body part remains on their paw print. Their freedom to talk is paired with the expectation that as soon as I say, “Quietly Stand,” that they stand and all talking ceases. If they work within the established parameters, they can then socialize. However, if they choose to not comply with the expectation, their freedom to chat is then revoked.

How do you provide for student autonomy in your gym?


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