School level

Autonomy and Choice

What is Autonomy and Choice in PE?

Autonomy is the perception of control and choice over a specific situation (Deci & Ryan, 1985). In a PE context this might entail increasing pupils’ options, offering an element of choice and the chance to make decisions in the lesson as well as welcoming questions and suggestions. In addition to choice around activities, choice can also relate to how and what to learn (Grey et al 2019). Accordingly we can have choice of activity and choice within an activity. Offering a perception of autonomy and choice to pupils in PE is a planned deliberate approach to support pupil learning that should not be confused with free play. Autonomy and choice can be provided to both younger and older children within the PE lesson in a variety of different ways.

Strategies for Providing Autonomy and Choice in PE

Irish primary school pupils have identified the provision of some choice and autonomy in PE as enjoyable and desirable (Coulter et al 2020, Mc Gann et al 2020). In all instances the key to supporting autonomy and choice is effective teacher communication. Effective teacher student communication reassures students that their voices will be heard and influence how the class works towards objectives (Perlman et al 2011). Although some areas of the PE curriculum do not lend themselves to the same degree of choice and autonomy as others, with some pre planning a simple element of choice or autonomy can be incorporated into most lessons. A number of strategies for providing autonomy and choice in PE are outlined in the downloadable poster below:

Why provide autonomy and choice in PE?

The provision of autonomy and choice is one of the elements of a mastery climate in PE. A mastery climate prioritises effort and improvement over outcome with success self-referenced and has been identified as beneficial to pupils’ motivation (Hastie et al 2013) and Fundamental Movement Skill development in Irish primary school children (Kelly et al 2020). Provision of some autonomy and choice in PE also has many other benefits:


  • Coulter, M., Scanlon,D., MacPhail, A., O’Brien, W., Belton, S., Woods, C. (2020): The (mis)alignment between young people’s collective physical activity experience and physical education curriculum development in Ireland, Curriculum Studies in Health and Physical Education, DOI: 10.1080/25742981.2020.1808493
  • Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.
  • An De Meester, Femke Van Duyse, Nathalie Aelterman, Gert-Jan De Muynck & Leen Haerens (2020) An experimental, video-based investigation into the motivating impact of choice and positive feedback among students with different motor competence levels, Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 25:4, 361-378, DOI: 10.1080/17408989.2020.1725456
  • Gray, S, Treacy, J & Hall, ET 2019, 'Re-engaging disengaged pupils in physical education: An appreciative inquiry perspective', Sport, Education and Society, vol. 24, no. 3, pp. 241-255.
  • Hagger, M.S., Chatzisarantis, N.L.D., Barkoukis, V., Wang, C.K.J., & Baranowski, J. (2005). Perceived autonomy support in physical education and leisure-time physical activity: A cross-cultural evaluation of the trans-contextual model. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97, 376390
  • Hastie,P., Rudisill, M.,  & Wadsworth, D. (2013) Providing students with voice and choice: lessons from intervention research on autonomy supportive climates in physical education, Sport, Education and Society, 18:1, 38-56, DOI: 10.1080/13573322.2012.701203
  • Kelly,L., O’Connor,S., Harrison, A.J. & Ní Chéilleachair, N. (2020): Effects of an 8-week school-based intervention programme on Irish school children's fundamental movement skills, Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, DOI:10.1080/17408989.2020.1834526
  • Maldonado, E., Zamarripa, J., Ruiz-Juan, F., Pacheco, R., & Delgado, M. (2019). Teacher autonomy support in physical education classes as a predictor of motivation and concentration in Mexican students. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 2834.
  • McGann, J., Meegan, S., Murtagh, E., Duff, C., & Belton, S. (2020). “…The Way That You Do It”: An Exploratory Study Investigating a Process versus Outcome-Oriented Approach to School-Based Physical Activity Promotion. Advances in Physical Education, 10, 262-281.
  • Perlman, D.J., & Webster, C.A. (2011). Supporting student autonomy in physical education. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 82(5), 46–49
  • Teraoka, E., Ferreira, H. J., Kirk, D., & Bardid, F. (2020). Affective learning in physical education: A systematic review. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education.
  • Valentini, N. C. & Rudisill, M. E. (2004) Motivational climate, motor-skill development, and perceived competence: two studies of developmentally delayed kindergarten children, Journal of Teaching Physical Education, 23, 216_234.
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