Integrating Elementary Physical Education and Science: A Cooperative Problem-Solving Approach

By Buchanan, Alice M.; Martin, Ellen et al. | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, February 2002 | Go to article overview

Integrating Elementary Physical Education and Science: A Cooperative Problem-Solving Approach


Buchanan, Alice M., Martin, Ellen, Childress, Ronda, Howard, Candice, Williams, Laure, Bedsole, Brendt, Ferry, Mike, JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


Every day, children are asked to make connections between the information they learn in school and the outside world. For instance, if they want to buy something at the store, build a car for a soapbox derby, or measure the correct amount of chemicals needed to make a model volcano come to life, they would need to be able to make certain mathematical calculations outside of the classroom. This holds true for other subject areas as well. It is important for children to make these conceptual connections to real-world experiences if they are to perceive curricular content as meaningful and relevant.

The ways in which children draw meaning from instructional contexts has long intrigued curriculum specialists in all areas of education. In the past, it was believed that children would benefit most from the back-to-basics movement, where the focus was on departmentalized disciplines that were isolated from one another (Placek, 1996). Yet some have suggested that it may be better to expose children to content that transcends traditional discipline-based learning. By focusing on broad topics that fuse different subjects into meaningful associations (Caine & Caine, 1991), teachers can help students recognize how the content taught in schools is relevant to their life (Jacobs, 1989). Such integrated curricula have been shown to enhance children's learning (Penman, Christopher, & Wood, 1977; Pissanos & Temple, 1990; Werner, 1971).

Given that one major purpose of the educational system is to develop the whole child, physical education shares with other content areas such interpersonal-development goals as respect, responsibility, cooperation, and citizenship. Physical education can also help children achieve cognitive goals such as gaining critical-thinking, problem-solving, and writing skills. In addition to such shared goals, physical education's unique contribution to education is the development of children's health, fitness, and motor skills.

The movement domain is thus an ideal venue for an integrated curriculum, since the efficient ways in which children naturally gain knowledge in their everyday encounters are not always harnessed or even recognized in traditional school settings. A child's knowledge evolves continuously yet is bound by context (Burnaford, Beane, & Brodhagen, 1994). Thus, it is most easily acquired when it is "situated" in a meaningful way (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989). The physical activity environment is one that appeals to many different children and enriches many different aspects of learning and experience (Hellison & Templin, 1991). By using an integrated approach, physical educators can provide creative opportunities to accommodate diverse learning styles and to unify concepts from various disciplines.

In the sections below, we describe an integrated-curriculum project that combines science, reading, writing, and physical education in cooperative problem-solving tasks. This hands-on learning experience--which we call "Fit Newton's Great Adventure"-- was implemented successfully with at-risk fifth graders at a rural elementary school.

Selecting Content Areas

Deciding which content areas to integrate depends on the context in which one teaches (e.g., factors such as students' needs, school priorities, and teacher value orientations must be considered). Physical education specialists can speak with classroom teachers as well as with students about the components that should be included in an integrated curriculum. For our project, we consulted sources within the school--primarily the fifth-grade teachers--as well as outside sources such as state Department of Education progress reports. As a result of this consultation, we chose the content areas of reading, writing, and science and the components of critical thinking, problem-solving, and cooperation as curricular emphases to be integrated with physical education.

Fit Newton's Great Adventure is a student-oriented project that places physical education and science outcomes in the foreground, while using writing, cooperative work, and problem-solving to facilitate achievement of these outcomes.

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