There is a Place for Human Target Games in PE, Censorship is not the Answer, “Best Practices” Depend on Context, and Much More!

My response to many of the issues that came up after an Edutopia article endorsed Human Target Games:

Recently, an Edutopia article drew the ire of many (influential) people within the Physical Education community. Here is the link: 5 Fun Gym Games to Get Kids Moving. Read it if you haven’t so you can make sense of what follows.

So what was it that they were objecting to? Here is a list of some of the objections:

  • “This is being lauded as good practice? Does anyone see content here?”
  • “Physical Assault is bad.”
  • “Please know national standards and appropriate practices before representing Quality PE.”
  • One comment was eventually removed, but I think it called for the removal of the article, and many people supported this idea.
  • “My concern with this article is it only mentions physical activity, no education objectives other than moving are mentioned. This is not PhysEd.”
  • “Where is the learning? Give a man a fish & he can feed himself for a day, teach a man to fish…..”
  • “Competence->confidence->increases chance of future participation. Need to have developmentally appropriate program of skill acquisition.”
  • “BHG. Busy, Happy, Good.”
  • “It brings PE back to ‘rolling the ball out’ days.”
  • “Speechless, not best practice, not quality PhysEd. We have so much work to do.”
  • “Seriously depressing…can’t even get support/respect from the educational community. So bummed.”
  • “Physical Education is so much more respectful than ‘gym.’ Maybe ‘5 PE games in the gym for when one wants students to assault each another?’”
  • “Dodgeball or any ‘human target’ games are not an appropriate practice in physical education. Here is the national organization’s position statement:” (links to SHAPE America’s position on Dodgeball)”
  • “Physical education is more than just fitness and games. It is about preparing students to be physically active for a lifetime.”

OK. So where to start?

Best Practices

The accusation that the games highlighted in the piece were NOT best practices is understandable, but represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the idea of “best practices.” It seems to me that these objectors view BP’s as universally applicable and universally accepted. But this is not the case, and in fact, this idea has been challenged elsewhere. Sure, there are some methods or techniques that we all pretty much agree on, but this does not mean that there are many, that we all agree, and that they work the same regardless of context.

The reality is that context, value, meaning, and purpose all interact to determine whatever BP may be. And this may change from moment to moment. BP is a fluid concept, not a fixed one that determines what is appropriate across all contexts at any and every point in time.

Perhaps it would have been better for the objectors to assume that the teacher who wrote the article has a grasp for what is best for his students and address their concerns from that place. Perhaps, in certain moments, these practices are best practices for his context, especially considering that PE teachers ultimately want their students to move NOW and in the future. Perhaps the way to get them to move in the future is to ENJOY movement now. And who determines what a kid enjoys? The kid does. A competent teacher can design experiences that awaken the joys of moving. Sometimes little victories lead to bigger and more frequent ones. So who is anybody to judge whether these activities are BP’s for this teacher in this context, at least without consulting the teacher and his students?


Some called for the removal of the article because it didn’t represent “Quality Physical Education” accurately. Some thought it would reinforce negative stereotypes. Some were afraid it legitimized inappropriate activities.

I understand all those concerns. I can see why anybody would have those.

But to suggest that the article be removed?

That’s censorship, and that’s not what moves ideas and practices forward. Dialogue does.

Perhaps it would have been better for the objectors to share some of their solutions to the problems of reluctant movers before they ever suggested taking the piece down.

One person even suggested, on Twitter, that the author or Edutopia have the “moral courage” to remove it.

This implies that by keeping the article available, they lack moral courage. Those are some strong words, especially considering the objections to the article are based on some major assumptions in the first place. It is one thing to disagree, but it is another thing altogether to suggest that it needs to be removed because one disagrees. That’s like saying, “I don’t like this. Get it out of here,” when others may actually find value in it.

By the way, when approached about using “moral courage,” the objector responded with: “No, this is a turn of a phrase and a nod to my friend.” Regardless of whose words those were, they were used.

No Content. No Learning. No Assessing.

This was a common one. “Where is the content?” “Where is the learning?” “Where are the objectives?” “Where is the assessment?”

These are assumptions. How do these objectors know if the author addresses these issues in class? They don’t. They just assumed that the balls were simply rolled out. Now, the author could have written about the objectives and standards he uses and how he assesses “learning” in the context of these games. Sure, that might have helped. But he is under no obligation to do this. Professionals can fill in the blanks and creatively find ways to meet standards, and more importantly, meet the needs of their students. I read the article and thought of ways I could tap into standards, objectives, GLO’s, etc. But that’s just me. And success, or victories, in my class are not always determined by the standards. I have real people with real needs and real desires in my class. We all decide what success looks like together.

Does every single article that highlights games and activities in PhysEd have to include a list of objectives or standards or assessments? I don’t think so. One person thought so.

So why did everybody assume there was no learning, no education, no objectives going on here?

I suggest that part of our problem is that we have very narrow views of what each of these terms mean. Learning is complex, and we often know more than we can tell. Are we concerned with “learning” in PE at the expense of development? Can a person in PE “get better” or “improve” without it being called “learning?” Are these the same things? There is no consensus on these terms. Perhaps there were students moving in rich and varied ways during these games and as a result developed a little more competence. Whether or not that ends up being measured, or whether it can be measured, does not determine if “learning” occurred.

The danger of PE teachers fixating on narrow conceptions of learning is that the entire experience gets ordered around a linear process: Plan-Teach-Assess. I’m sorry, but learning is much too complex to be reduced to a simple formula like that. I know it’s popular in academic circles, and I know we are constantly battling for attention and legitimacy (a “seat at the table”), but let’s not kid ourselves. Learning objectives are many and personal and should not be judged against an arbitrary set of outcomes.

So when everybody assumed no learning was involved in these games, it was not because there was a lack of learning. It was because “learning” was narrowly framed in the first place, and so they couldn’t see a possibility for it.

And as far as assessment goes, in terms of movement, evidence of learning can take many forms, particularly qualitative. All of these games can be assessed qualitatively.

This is Not Quality PE. This Sends us Back to the Old Days

I understand the desire to distance ourselves from our dreadful past. But we are taking this too far. In trying to outrun our former selves and in the attempt to gain legitimacy in the eyes of academia, some of us in the PhysEd world have decided that Quality PE is a thing. And that thing should roughly look the same everywhere. And all attempts to judge PE practices or programs should be measured against that thing. Otherwise it ain’t PE.

Though well-intentioned, this can be a mistake.

Quality PE cannot be defined without context.

These objections have more to do with our past and getting as far from it as we can than it does any sort of notions of best practice or learning or whatever.

I think what you see in this backlash is simply a understandable reaction by well-meaning PE people to protect the field from our former reputation.

I get that.

But let’s be honest about that and stop acting like fascists.

Grand Finale: Human Target Games


Here is the logic usually presented:

Don’t play human target games because they are dangerous, encourage bullying, are psychologically damaging, exclusionary, and represent inappropriate social practices.

In short, hitting is wrong. And we don’t want to hurt people or encourage violence in school, so never play these games.

Here is SHAPE’s Position:

Now, while I understand the need or desire for SHAPE to take this position, I do disagree with some of the underlying rationale, and I think it should be left up to the context (teacher, student, school, community, etc.) to decide if human target games are appropriate or not.

Let’s look at some more from SHAPE:

If a job of school leaders is to “minimize opportunities for aggressive behavior,” and if dodgeball “creates an opportunity for aggressive behavior” that a school would not allow “in any other circumstance,”then why the heck is there High School Football being played at High Schools across the country?

If school is “a place where students…learn acceptable social behaviors…that will apply outside of school,” and those behaviors involve the idea that “hitting is inappropriate,” then why is there football on campus?

See, the school endorses hitting by having a football team. They are, in effect, saying that hitting is a socially acceptable behavior, just by having a football team. The mere presence of that sport endorses hitting. Now, it isn’t a violent hitting. Nor is it malicious. Well, it isn’t supposed to be, but you’ve watched football. It can get that way. But it is hitting.

The key here is this: not all hitting is hitting. Put another way, hitting in sport or games is not the same as inappropriate violent or malicious hitting. And it is this hitting that SHAPE and everybody else wants to avoid. And I agree. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that all hitting is this type of hitting.

Now, some people challenge me on using the sports example. They say “we are talking about PE. That is different from sport.” Yes, it is. But it is still an acceptable social behavior on school campuses. So why can’t one use human target games in PE if there is a football team on campus? Why a different standard? The answer given to me, typically, is: it’s not appropriate for PE (who decides this?), or they circle back to “hitting is wrong and unethical. It’s wrong to hit another human.” Again, different types of hitting exist.

So what really are the main issues here?

First, the fear of injury, of bullying, malice, etc.

My question is, can’t a human target game be modified so as to produce none of that? Now don’t say to me that hitting is unacceptable, so no matter what modifications are made, it is still hitting. See that football team right there? Hitting is acceptable. Human Targets are acceptable social behavior. The issue is not hitting. The real issue is injury and safety, both psychologically and physically.

So if my students love a game of modified dodgeball and are willing to give it their best effort, why can’t they? All sorts of skills are being reinforced during dodging/evasion games and all sorts of lessons can be learned from playing them (or playing almost anything), provided the teacher is competent.

If the game is culturally relevant, and the students will play it later in life (and now), and I can modify it so that:

  • It is safe
  • Optional (this matters, as if one is OK with being “hit,” it ceases to be wrong….I’m not talking about injurious hitting here)
  • Nobody gets “out”
  • I can tie together learning objectives and standards and yada yada yada

And I can do all of this within a culture of respect so that students understand that the playing of these games involve care for the other and that they are responsible to each other to make it work, and all while I am there watching.

What is wrong with that?

See, you can’t say it is wrong, period. You can say it is wrong for “these reasons and in these conditions.” But if those conditions aren’t there, and if schools have human target sports (football) already, then there is a place for human target games. But you better know what you are doing. You better have a good culture, and I fully acknowledge that human target games are not for everyone.

To sum it all up:

Dialogue is better than censorship.

Best practices is a complex notion that is context dependent.

Careful what you assume.

There is no unified notion of PE or of Quality PE. This depends on context.

Learning and education is happening all the time, whether you notice or measure it or not.

Hitting is not “hitting” in every case, and I should be able to play human target games in the right conditions.

I understand everybody’s concerns. They are all valid. Maybe next time we can try a little harder to approach a situation like this with a little more understanding, humility, and a desire to learn more.