Athletics – challenging the status quo

In my experience with primary and intermediate schools over the last year, it would be fair to say that almost every school I am working with has ‘Athletics’ sitting somewhere in their PE programme.  When I ask why they are teaching athletics for six weeks, the school will inevitably respond with ‘to get the students ready for the school Athletics Day’.  And if I then ask the question ‘what is the purpose of the school Athletics Day?’, inevitably the response is to select students for the inter-school Athletics Day.  Very little consideration is given to the place and purpose of Athletics in the school, or to the learning that may or may not occur while athletics takes place during curriculum time, and there is very little, if any connection to curriculum.  In most cases it is doing something because that is what we have always done.

In term four last year I worked with some Primary schools (year 1-6) to challenge them to consider different ways of teaching the fundamental movement skills required for athletics activities.  These activities were taught to me by some Athletics NZ staff and they align with the vision that Athletics NZ has for young people’s experiences in Athletics.  Initially I had observed teachers trying to teach five year olds baton changing, and lining them up beside the long jump pit so that they could all have a go, one at a time, jumping in the long jump pit.   So my challenge was to provide these teachers with some alternative activities to ensure their learners were more active, could experience a more playful style of learning, and therefore have lots of fun.

Here are some examples of some jumping activities that I did with Year 1-3 students:

Year One (they love a good narrative!)

Focussing on jumping, hopping, balancing.

“Today we are going to pretend to be some animals that jump, hop, and balance.

What animal stands on one leg?  Let’s all pretend to be a Flamingo.

The Flamingo is getting tired standing on that leg; let’s swap legs.

Now the Flamingo is getting hungry; can you stay balanced on one leg but bend down and touch the ground without losing your balance.  Now try that again balanced on the other leg.

Can you tell me the name of an animal that hops or jumps?

Show me how a kangaroo jumps.

Show me how a frog jumps.

Show me how a rabbit jumps.

Can you think of an animal that hops on one leg?

Let’s practise – hopping on our left leg, now let’s practise hopping on our right leg.


I can see a pond of lily pads; let’s all go and be frogs on the lily pads.  Show me how you can jump from lily pad to lily pad.

What are some different ways that we can jump from lily pad to lily pad?  

Two feet -> two feet.

One foot -> two feet.

One foot -> same foot (hop)

One foot -> other foot (leap)

Which help you get the furthest?  Have a go at some ways that you haven’t tried yet.

What do we need to think about when we are landing?

Soft knees.


Year Two

Focussing on jumping and landing.

What sports and games use jumping?

What do you need to do to jump a long way?

Scene: River (using skipping ropes to show the bank); crocodiles in the river (can use cones as visual)

LJ = take off 1 foot, land 2 feet and arms out in front, knees bent (riding a motor bike)

Start with standing jump – ask ‘How could we generate more power to jump further?’ -> run up.

Adaptations: Add challenge by making one end wider to give students opportunity to jump greater distance and discuss the importance of running up to the jump and the take off on one foot landing with soft knees body weight forward.  Add in cones to gain height in jump. (student run up distance in years –eg: 8 years = 8 mtrs)


Year three

Modified high jump activities:

The Scissor kick skill is most similar to what fundamental movement skill?

  • Kick is the fundamental skill used (think drop kick movement)

TC (Teaching Cue) – Toes to the sky (increase hip movement)

TC – Push arms up (driving)

Remind student’s legs don’t need to be straight – bent knee is easier and best

  • Students work in pairs with a skipping rope on the ground and practice scissor   kick over the rope
  • Practice in groups of 3 with the skipping rope alternating taking turns two people holding “How high would you like it?” Challenge by choice.  Swap out the person holding the rope.


  • High Jump activity (using rakau balanced on the top of witches hat cones) – allows students to jump from both sides (important that they practise kicking leading with both legs)


In term one this year I am working with an Intermediate school to challenge some of their practices.  They have their school Athletics Day in week 5, and they are taking each of their Syndicates to camp in weeks 6-7.  These were non-negotiables in designing a focus for PE for term 1, and this is what we have co-constructed together.





In the place of ‘daily fitness’ I am encouraging teachers to take their class out for an ABL activity each day to reinforce the achievement objectives and the key learning.  

Some examples include:

Feet together

Group size – 5-6

The aim of the activity is to be the first group to cover a set distance (10-15m), with the limitation being that they must remain at all times with the sides of their feet in contact with the sides of the feet of the people on either side of them.

Allow time for groups to practise and develop strategies.  You might like to offer groups some hints after a while if needed.  

Some hints to use include:

  1.     support each other physically, socially and emotionally
  2.     get tight
  3.     move half your feet each step, every person moves one foot each time


Once you think they have all had sufficient time to practise, line them up on the start line and set them off.  Watch each group carefully, if they break contact at all, they have to go back to the start line and start again.

Helium Pole

Group size – 5-6

Equipment – tent pole/bamboo pole/rakau (1 per group)

Group lines up along either side of a lightweight pole and takes up a position facing one another with arms outstretched and with the pole balanced on the backs of their index fingers.  Aim is to not lose contact at any time throughout the activity and attempt to lower the pole from standing position down to the ground level.  Honesty is a key as at all times those fingers need to be in contact with the pole and underneath the pole.  Not as easy as it sounds!!

Skipping Challenge

Group size – any

Equipment – Large skipping ropes or long climbing ropes

Objective is to get the whole class through the turning rope one at a time uner the following conditions:

  • The rope must not turn without a person in it
  • The rope turners must also go through the rope (optional)

Extensions you can include after they successfully complete the first challenge is:

  • Each person must enter and jump the rope once before exiting
  • Get the entire group to run through on one turn of the rope
  • See how many people the group can get jumping at the same time.  Can either enter one at a time, or can run in altogether and count the number of jumps a group can complete together.


I asked teachers what some of the challenges were that they and their learners faced when teaching Athletics?

  • Lack of coordination
  • Lack of confidence
  • Too much standing around waiting to ‘have a turn’
  • Learners were on show all the time; everyone watching them when they have their turn
  • Lack of student agency
  • Boring


This is an example of a lesson that teachers could use for the vortex to address some of the challenges above.




There is a long way to go in terms of challenging some of the Athletics practices in schools to ensure that quality physical education is taking place.  Small steps 🙂


*This blog is my own, hence I write it in the first person; however I would like to acknowledge and also pay credit to the team of mentors that I am working with that contribute to this planning and professional development for teachers.


One thought on “Athletics – challenging the status quo

  1. Hi Celia
    Great post and soooo true. “We do it this way because we have always done it this way”… and this happens with Athletics Day, Cross Country…
    Is there any chance we could get in touch? I am facilitating a workshop for Primary School teachers and I would love to use your post as a pre-reading for them (as they will come to an “athletics workshop” and there won’t be any “Athletics” event explained or taught in it… a bit sneaky…)
    My email is



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