9. Goldilocks and her Influence on my PE Practice

We all know the tale of Goldilocks, the three bears, and the porridge that was too hot, too cold, and just right. It’s a nursery rhyme that has lasted the test of time, but within this story, there lies a great lesson for PE (and life).

This lesson doesn’t relate to storytelling, which, when used within the PE environment, can be a powerful teaching tool that captures the imagination of the teacher and student. To hear more about storytelling and its use within Physical Education, I encourage you to check out an awesome chat I had with Andy Hair on the ‘This is your Teaching Life’ podcast (link at bottom of page).

The lesson taken from the story of Goldilocks that can be applied to PE was a theory I was first introduced to while listening to ‘Atomic Habits’ on audible. The book speaks about habit building, and how to best develop new habits within your life. The book, written by James Clear, discusses the ‘Goldilocks theory’ and that in order to be motivated with new tasks, the tasks need to fall within the optimal level of difficulty. This means that if a new habit, or task, is too easy, then it won’t give us enough cognitive stimulation and we won’t be motivated to return to it, as it doesn’t provide an adequate challenge. On the flip side to this, if a challenge is too difficult, we will lose motivation as we may not see any improvement, find the new habit/task too challenging, and therefore lose motivation and give up.

What we need is a task that is just like the porridge that Goldilocks stumbled upon - we need it to be just right. It needs to be at a level where we can complete the task with an existing skill set, but it also needs to offer a level of difficulty that extends our current skill set so that we are motivated in order to complete the task.

It makes complete sense. A few years ago, while living on Phillip Island, I decided to try and start surfing more often and improve. If I went straight out to Woolamai (a wave known to be heavy & dangerous), there is a fair chance I would have struggled on the powerful waves, found it too difficult, and potentially given up. However, I had surfed enough in the past to find catching white-water at a family-friendly beach, like Smiths Beach, not too challenging. So based upon this, I had to find somewhere in the middle that was going to offer an entry-level experience where I would be able to surf, but also offer a challenge in catching clean waves and learning to maneuver the surfboard. (Hello, Shellys for anyone that knows the area).

I’m sure you know where this is now going - how do you offer challenges and tasks within your Physical Education environment that offer all students an entry-level experience, yet a challenge that continues to motivate them?

Since listening to the theory, I have become more and more intrigued, and reflective, on how I differentiate my lessons so that the Goldilocks theory can be applied and offer all students a motivating experience.

Something I have found is that using a gamification philosophy - even to the most basic of levels - can have a dramatic impact on addressing this for all students.

For example, if I am looking at the Fundamental Movement Skill of Throwing, and students are playing a game, or completing a circuit in which they must throw at a target, I offer them 3 different levels to throw from. These differing levels are simply marked by a Poly-Spot and spread out at varying distances. Through this, students have the opportunity to go to the closest level if they need to, the middle distance if they find that challenging, or obviously the furthest distance in order to challenge themselves a little more - one distance may be too easy, one may be too hard, and one may be just right. For others, this same setup may be just right, and too hard, and too hard. It will vary, but it gives the students the opportunity to decide for themselves - what is right for them?.

In a game situation, sometimes I will vary the points that students can achieve by throwing from varying levels, and sometimes I don’t. My philosophy on not always allowing for greater distance equating to greater points is that I like to offer every student the thrill of scoring the ‘big’ points in a game. Sometimes when we play a game, there are students that find it far too hard to throw from the maximal point zone and hit a target. Therefore, I will say to the students, if you hit the target from any dot, you get 300 points for your team…. However, (and this will give a glimpse into the motivation of the student), I encourage students to choose a level to throw from that is suitable to them. I ask that students, even though they’ll score the same amount of points regardless, challenge themselves and throw from a distance that they believe challenges them - not because it’s the easiest way to score points for their team. From this approach, I believe all students have the opportunity to equally contribute to their team, regardless of the skill level, yet are still challenged, motivated, and engaged with the task at hand.

Obviously, this approach is the most basic of gamification, but it is highly effective and can be manipulated for any FMS that you are teaching. I have found it to be incredibly helpful and motivating for all students, which can be measured through the eye-test of engagement and enthusiasm within a game that is being played.

The ‘Goldilocks theory’ certainly makes a lot of sense and is something that I continue to keep at the forefront of my mind when planning and setting up activities.

To find out more about the goldilocks theory, you can check it out here: https://jamesclear.com/goldilocks-rule

I would also recommend reading, or listening to the ‘Atomic Habits’ book. I loved listening to it on Audible, but I somewhat regret not reading it myself, as I know if I read it in text form the book would have highlighter marks all the way through it and notes scribbled down.

Also, if you’re keen to check out the ‘This is your Teaching Life’ episode with Andy Hair where we touch on the power of storytelling within PE, along with many other PE related concepts, you can find it on the link below:

#3 This Is Your Teaching Life - Andy Hair: Trailblazing PE Guru