by Lynn Hefele
I must admit, I was a little shocked a few years back when I discovered that the “Messy Backyard” was in “The PE Hall of Shame.” I had been using this activity to teach overhand throwing for years and it was the inspiration for my first Literature Enhanced Physical Education fictional story.
According to the “Hall of Shame,” (Inducted: 1994) The Messy Backyard is a misbegotten and mindless creation where students on opposing teams frantically throw objects over a barrier into the other team’s court until the whistle is blown. The objects are counted and a winner is determined. Factor in students’ inabilities to count so many objects, the ignored stop signal, blind luck and the inevitable piercing screams of young children and you have one of the worst games of all time. (http://www.pecentral.org/professional/hos/index.html)
My reaction to this description of the activity was, “What? That’s not my Clean Up Your Backyard!” In my opinion, the problem is not with the activity but in the implementation of the activity.
First, any activity that has a motivational objective (i.e. cleaning up your yard) that gets every child moving to a level of moderate to vigorous physical activity has some merit.
I will admit, when I first started teaching this activity, I was blinded by the motion. To me, having every child moving, instead of waiting their turn to take a single throw was brilliant. It wasn't until after I had published “Clean Up Your Backyard” that I received constructive criticism on my implementation of the lesson.
That is when I realized that if the objective of the lesson was to teach throwing, then the frenzy must be controlled. Students must understand that while speed will assist in the motivational objective of cleaning up the backyard, the true objective of the lesson is to learn to throw correctly. Therefore, it is imperative that the teacher provide the students with teaching cues prior to the start of the activity, discuss the rubric that will be used to assess student learning, and continuously provide feedback to students during the activity that forces students to focus on learning while playing.
One of the things I love the most about this activity is that it inherently allows students the freedom to differentiate their own learning. Weaker students will move right up to the net to throw while more experienced students will retrieve a ball from the back wall and launch it from far away.
However, even within this relaxed framework, structure can take place to address the needs of all students. For example, during the first lesson with my kindergarten students, I like to let them explore by simply asking them to get the garbage over the net. Then with each successive round of play (without scoring), I then begin to add an overhand throwing cue. For example, “See if you can get the ball over the net by bringing the ball back behind your ear and making the letter L with your elbow.” The next round, I will add stepping in opposition and in the final round, starting with the side to the target.
With older students, I have created independent learning stations. By placing tape on the floor that mirrors the correct footwork, students that are in the developing stage of the skill can practice without direct teacher supervision. I also create stations that depict an exaggerated step and challenge the students to experiment with a short stride and a long stride. We make a hypothesis, experiment, and then discuss the results. Finally, with older students we introduce the “crow hop” and discuss when it is used in the game of baseball.
Here are what the learning station look like:
Next, we add targets to work on throwing for accuracy. Mylar balloons are attached to cones and distributed around the gym at varying distances and heights from the dividing line. We then use independent learning stations with the lead foot pointing in different directions and experiment with where to step in relation to the target.
We give 1 pt. to the team with the least amount of garbage and one point for the team that is on their stomachs first. During the throwing for accuracy rounds, we give points for hitting a target.
It was also pointed out to me that the entire concept of throwing garbage was environmentally irresponsible. While I consider the activity to be whimsical, I did take the notion to heart and not only began discussing personal, community and environmental responsibility with the students, I also modified the final rounds to reflect the proper recycling of garbage. We place three containers at the baseline of each yard. If a ball is caught in the air, it can be recycled. If it is picked up off the ground it must be thrown. When all of the balls are in the proper recycling bin, the points are counted. For example, red balls represent bottles and cans and receive 5 cents, green balls are papers and are worth 2 cents and yellow balls represent all other garbage and get 1 cent.
Finally, while I discourage the piercing screams, the sound of children enjoying purposeful moderate to vigorous physical activity should be music to our ears!
In conclusion, not only do I think that Clean Up Your Backyard should be taken out of the Hall of Shame, I think that if it is implemented properly, the basic concept can be one of the most effective ways to teach throwing skills.