Amidst the coronavirus lockdown, with schools closed, I am on increased childcare with my 18 month old daughter. The other day, my partner took away some of her toys, saying she would play ‘deeper’ with less. As a newly qualified parent with a low toddler skillset, this immediately made me apprehensive.

How would I get through the next hour, let alone the entire day?

As the morning unfolded, I was amazed to observe her as she focused for longer, showing more thought and imagination with each toy. My partner was right. This experience reminded me of the often debated depth versus breadth discussion in Physical Education.

Greater breadth creates more initial excitement at the prospect of new activities, games and sports. Crucially, it enables more pupils to identify positively with at least one activity. This breadth facilitates positive connections between different activities in skill learning. It is for this reason that many elite sportspeople do not specialise in their chosen activity too early. 

In contrast, focusing on fewer activities in greater depth enables a deeper repetition of basic skills. This depth leads to greater mastery of tasks. This competence develops confidence and the motivation to sustain participation, particularly in those less able.

It is useful in this discussion to think about intended outcomes. We want to develop all pupils physically, cognitively, personally, socially, emotionally and creatively. This would imply breadth – more activities – more development opportunities. But we want to sustain motivation in the longer term. This would imply depth – more repetition of basic skills – more competence and confidence.

So when depth, and when breadth?

Think of a kite. If the kite’s string represents a deep repetition of the most basic physical skills learned in the pre-school years, a greater amount of time afforded to these basic skills will lengthen this string – the kite will fly higher. The base of the kite marks a narrow curriculum at the beginning of primary school – as more fundamental skills are embedded and reinforced. 

As children move through primary school and into the first few years of secondary school, the kite widens – the curriculum broadens. Pupils expand on their skills and understanding with a broader activity focus. By mid-adolescence, the kite can narrow again as most pupils choose fewer activities to sustain, at a deeper level, long into adulthood.