By: Mark Banasiak @MoreThanGym
One of the first units we teach each year is 4-square. I like to begin with this unit of instruction for several reasons. First, it is a great activity that involves basic striking skills, cooperation, and use of strategy. Second, our school has several 4-square courts painted on the playground so it is a great activity the students can participate in during recess. Third, we encourage the students to draw a court at home (with sidewalk chalk) and engage their friends and family in either 2-square or 4-square. Finally, it lays the foundation for how our units of instruction will flow. This introduces our new students and refreshes our returning students to the Student Progression Model of Instruction (SPMI).
A key detail in the SPMI is to define the critical elements and the common mistakes of each step in the progression. This must be done in order to be able to give specific feedback. By taking the time to define the critical elements and common mistakes, you are creating a rubric. This rubric will play a key role during the actual instruction and skill assessment.
The following is our 4-Square Progression (two-hand, underhand striking with a playground ball) for 2nd-5th grades:
1. Drop, hit, bounce, catch (DBHC): This is the serve in 4-square. The focus is on the initial hit that is dropped and then hit to a partner who is straight across.
Critical Elements of the DHBC:
- TSW drop the ball straight down from waist level.
- TSW step forward with one foot as striking.
- TSW strike it underhand with two hands (fingers pointing to the floor).
- TSW make contact with their finger pads [similar hand contact as the basketball dribble (striking the ball upward versus pushing it down)].
- The ball should move to their partner with a medium level arch.
- The ball should bounce one time followed by the partner catching it.
Common Mistakes of the DHBC:
- TSW carry the ball rather than striking it.
- TSW not take a step.
- TSW hit the ball with too much or too little force.
- TSW hit the ball with their hands in the overhand position.
- TSW strike the ball with only one hand.
2. Drop, hit, hit, hit, catch (DHHHC): The focus is now on the second and third hits that come from a partner who is straight across. They now have to track the ball, react, and strike it back to their partner. This step purposely has three hits to allow the person who serves it to change each time.
- Critical Elements of the DHHHC: same as above plus the students should move up/back/sideways (if needed) to strike the ball
- Common Mistakes of the DHHHC: same as above plus the student standing still and not moving up/back/sideways
3. Drop, hit, hit… (DHH…): This is a continuous hit. The focus is now on the second, third, and additional hits that come from a partner who is straight across. That is, are the two consistently striking it back and forth (4-6 hits in a row)?
- Critical Elements and Common Mistakes of the DHH…: same as above
4. Multiple Partners: The students are placed in groups of 4 on a 4-square court. The focus is now on receiving and striking a ball to and from different angles. There is no mention of rules or boundaries. The students simply focus on how many hits in a row their group can get before it bounces twice.
- Critical Elements of Striking with Multiple Partners: same as above plus each student can now hit it to different people
- Common Mistakes of Striking with Multiple Partners: same as above plus not paying attention as the ball may or may not come to them
5. Modified 4-Square: The focus is now on learning the rules, boundaries, and strategical errors of the activity as well as the basic rotation. I usually introduce one or two rules at a time in order not to bombard them.
I define the rules as, “If you…then your turn is over,” or “If this happens in your square…then your turn is over.”
Rules: If any of the following occur, your turn is over:
- If you hit it airborne (i.e., way out of bounds)
- If it bounces twice in your square
- If you hit it overhand/one-handed
- If you cause it to hit the center line
- If it bounces once in your square and you do not hit it
6. Traditional 4-Square: The focus is now on applying the rules, boundaries, and strategies of the activity.
I prefer to put the students into groups of 5. I have found that requiring one student to momentarily wait a turn helps to keep the entire group on-task. We typically use an 8.5” playground ball (PGB). In our gym, the 4-square courts are 8’ x 8’, and we have 20 of them to accommodate our large classes. Having this many 4-square courts can be useful for other things as well.
Our squares are labeled #1-4 with #4 being the king/queen of the court. The rotation can be confusing to some students. If your turn is over, you then move to the end of the line while the others move up.
Pro-Tip: I remind the students to only rotate if there is a square open in front of them. For instance, if the student in square #3 makes a mistake, they go to the end of the line while #4 stays put, #2 moves up to square #3, #1 moves up to square #2, and the next person in line enters to square #1.
The initial steps of this progression (#1 DHBC & #2 DHHHC) may be introduced in 2nd grade as a challenge with the latter steps being further developed when the students reach 4th and 5th grade. Items #5 & #6 in the progression are skill dependent. That is, we may or may not progress to them with the 3rd graders. It all depends on their skill level. Since I do not have much turnover of students from year to year, the 5th graders may begin at step #4. If so, I check with any new students to make sure they have steps #1-3 under control.
To add some variety, I sometimes allow the students to use a 5” PGB, a 24” ball, or to play on their knees.
If the class has a good grasp on the skills, rules, and strategies, we extend the learning through activities like Aerobic Striking and a 4-Square Tournament.
Aerobic Striking (DHH… with a team):
- Variation A (Continuous Striking): Each 4-square court should have 5 students. A group of 3 (in a line) should be at one corner while a group of 2 (in a line) should be at the opposite corner. The goal is for the two corner groups to work together to execute the DHH… for as long as possible. The group of 3 starts with the ball and begins the DHH… sequence. As soon as the first person hits the ball, they should rotate to the end of their line. The first person in the group of 2 then strikes the ball back and rotates to the end of their line. This back and forth striking continues until a mistake is made.
- Variation B (Switching Sides): Same as above; however, as soon as each person hits the ball, they should rotate to the end of the OPPOSITE line.
4-Square Tournament: The gym is divided into 3 levels with all students beginning at level 1.
- Level 1 – If you serve the ball 3 times in a row, you get to move to level 2.
- Level 2 – If you serve the ball 2 times in a row, you get to move to level 3. If you get out 2 times, you move back down to level 1.
- Level 3 – If you serve the ball 2 times in a row, you get 1 bagel (a sliced pool noodle) and start all over. If you get out 2 times, you move back down to level 2.
I thoroughly enjoy teaching this unit and interacting with the students as they participate.
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