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Can PE help children learn maths?

Dr Mhairi Macdonald

Picture of Dr Mhairi Macdonald
Dr Mhairi Macdonald, Lecturer in Physical Education and Children’s Physical Activity, specialises her research in child physical activity and how this can be incorporated across the school curriculum – looking at the bigger picture of the impact PE can have on child health and learning.

Many of us have great memories of PE classes at school – games of rounders on the field in summer, giving it your all in the 200m sprint on sports day, getting your first proper rally going in a game of tennis with a friend. But how often were our PE lessons linked to our classroom learning? Were we missing out on the opportunity to mix the joy of sport with learning new skills in maths or technology?

You have worked in many school settings during your career. What is your favourite thing about teaching PE in schools?


One of my favourite things about teaching PE is inspiring children and adolescents to better understand the importance of physical activity and its impact on health. It is often said that exercise is the best medicine and PE as a subject is unique in the fact that it can positively impact physical and mental health as well as cognitive function.

A pile of footballs.

When did you first become interested in how PE can be used as a catalyst for other learning?

As a PhD student I had to recruit schools to take part in my research, which focused on walking for health. PE departments were my go-to, however I quickly discovered that it was also everyone else’s go-to department for physical activity and health related research. Therefore, I had to think outside the box and one way I engaged the schools was by creating cross curricular education packages that linked to my research at the time. It was in setting up these packages I realised that using physical activity and sport as a context for learning, I could link with a number of subject areas including science, business studies, information technology, computer science, music and modern languages to name but a few.

An image of a group of people playing a game with balls.

You are a firm believer that PE can be used as a context for learning across the whole curriculum, for all age ranges. Can you tell us more?

PE is such an adaptable subject area and it is much more than running around in a sports hall for 45 minutes. When we use physical activity and sport as a context of learning we can often adapt PE into a classroom setting across a number of curricular areas and across all key stages. Some examples of this are working with the cardio and respiratory systems practically within Science and PE, creations of apps within information technology which capture activity and performance, linking music and PE and using data collected within PE (this can be simple or more involved depending on the key stage it’s aimed at), in maths, business and computing. We know that being physically literate is important, as is reducing time spent in sedentary activity, therefore following a more active curriculum I believe is a key public health investment.

 An image of maths calculations on a piece of paper.

Do you have any stand-out memories of children who have had a memorable learning experience through sport and PE?

As an educator, creating an inclusive and engaging learning environment, where individuals can reach their potential, whether they are an academic or vocational learner is key to giving memorable learning experiences. I have been involved in a number of learning experiences that have used in PE and sport to engage learners. Some may be viewed as less traditional, but again link to the cross-curricular idea. For example, I have had primary school pupils undertaking an angles and coordinate treasure hunt within PE, linking PE with Maths. Maths can be a particular struggle for some pupils, however using the treasure hunt idea brings what is on the paper come to life.

I remember one child suddenly stop and shout “YES!”, do a little glory jump and say, “I got it right, I understand now”. Within secondary school I have involved pupils in a French lesson while competing on stationary bikes. After this lesson one pupil said, “all this cycling has lit the light bulb in my head miss, when I do my test, I am going to pretend I am cycling so I remember”. I have brought these experiences with me to my teaching at Edge Hill. I encourage students to be creative and give them opportunities to do so within the practical PE setting as well as teaching them more traditional methods.

A lot of your research focuses on adolescent girls, who are typically less engaged with PE and sport than their peers. Can you tell us more?

Adolescent girls are an at-risk group that tend to disengage within the PE environment. We know that their physical activity level drops off significantly in the transition between primary to secondary school and this can impact on their current and future health. Therefore, it is important to work with this population to explore ways to increase their daily physical activity. Some projects that I have worked on specifically with adolescent girls include exergaming, using dance mats. This project concluded that ‘dance simulation’ computer games provide an opportunity for most adolescent girls to exercise at moderate intensity. I have also worked on a number of walking projects. Walking can be a convenient alternative to play and sport participation in this population and with the advancement in wearable technologies it is also easy to measure and communicate relevant physical activity guidelines.

How have undergraduate students engaged with this area of research?

Many students have wanted to delve deeper and find out more about this topic – particularly wearable technologies, and parents’ and PE practitioners’ attitudes towards these being used in children’s daily lives and as a learning tool within the classroom. One of my students, Louise Mansell, recently completed her dissertation in this area:

Louise Mansell
Louise Mansell

“My interest in researching parents’ and PE practitioners’ attitudes towards adolescents’ use of wearable technologies was due to the common misconception among parents that “my child is skinny, therefore they are healthy”. The socially constructed view of health based on physical appearance remains trending today, in relation to the latest technology such as Apple Watches and Fitbits becoming fashionable yet expensive. I think it’s crucial that parents and PE teachers alike should be educated on the use of wearable technologies and how they can be used to promote physical health and engagement with sport and physical activity.

My research found that, parents were often able to find cheaper alternatives to the more expensive brands that were able to carry out the same health measures for their children – but they were not necessarily using the technology to monitor health and fitness in their children. I believe that if parents and PE teachers broadened the use of wearable technologies in adolescents, taking advantage of their capabilities, they could encourage physical activity and health among an age group that is widely disengaged.”

Louise Mansell, BA (Hons) Physical Education and School Sport

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