What is Educational Gymnastics?


The term educational gymnastics emerged in Great Britain in the 1950’s to describe a child-centered, non-competitive, creative approach to movement (i.e., body management).  Educational gymnastics is committed to the unique way each child moves and learns.  Each gymnast is challenged to solve problems, develop skills, and create movements at an appropriate level.  A major belief of educational gymnastics holds that it is within the capacity of all children to achieve excellence.   Educational gymnastics should encourage students to create movements and develop individualized sequences.


The Olympic style of teaching gymnastics relies on a convergent teaching style.  Here, there is one specific way to perform skills.  This style is unrealistic and inappropriate for students of varied skill levels and body types within a general physical education class.  An Olympic style might require a handstand (i.e., weight transfer to hands) to be performed with the arms, torso, legs, and toes perfectly aligned.  Conversely, educational gymnastics relies on a divergent teaching style.  Here, there are many ways for learners respond to movement problems. For example, an Olympic gymnast would perform a handstand with fingers spread on a mat shoulder width apart with the arms, head, torso, legs and feet in perfect vertical alignment with the toes pointing up.  In educational gymnastics, learners could respond to the movement problem of taking the body’s weight on the hands through a wide variety of movements that include taking the body’s weight on the hands and arms and kicking the feet up to a medium level to a handstand.


Educational gymnastics includes general categories of movement such as travel, weight transfer, balance, jumping/flight/landing and rotation.  These skills are developed with emphasis on space, effort and relationships aspects.  In this type of gymnastics students learn how to manage their body rather than perform a skill in a highly specific manner.   Teachers should provide learning experiences using as much of the movement framework as possible.  They should understand the movement framework and how to use it in order to differentiate learning experiences.  This helps us be more inclusive of students with diverse abilities. Subsequently, gymnastics will be more meaningful and rewarding for students.


Learning experiences from the body aspect can include locomotor movements, supporting body weight over different bases of support, applying and receiving force or weight (e.g., during rotation or weight transfer to hands), and non-locomotor movement (e.g., circle turn, jump turn, hang, swing).  Gymnasts can emphasize the space aspect to vary movement through areas, directions, pathways, levels, extensions and planes.  For example, learners could practice rotating in the three cardinal planes or connect movement along floor and through air pathways. 


Educational gymnasts must learn to vary use of time, weight, space and flow.  For example, a gymnast could learn how to show acceleration and deceleration during rotation or move in an ongoing manner during travel and show momentary stillness during balance.  Teachers should emphasize the relationships inherent in gymnastics.  These include the relationships of the gymnast’s body parts to each other (e.g., hands on bars and feet above or below hands); the gymnast to a partner or group of gymnasts (leading and following, supporting another gymnast and being supported); and the gymnast to apparatus (e.g., mounting and dismounting, above or below).


Body Aspects of Educational Gymnastics


The movement content of gymnastics can be divided into four parts: rotation, balance and locomotor/non locomotor movement.  The spatial, effort and relationship aspects of the movement framework should be used to modify what the body does during gymnastics lessons.




Rotation is an important part of gymnastics.  It is important to provide learning experiences that require rotation in the three (major or cardinal) planes of the body. A plane is a flat two dimensional surface.  The door or frontal plane is a vertical plane that divides the body into a front and back half.  The transverse or table plane (horizontal plane) divides the body into a top and bottom half.   The sagittal or wheel plane divides the body into right and left halves.  Rotation within a plane occurs around an axis of rotation that is perpendicular to the plane. A vertical spin, for example, occurs around a longitudinal axis. This axis is perpendicular to the transverse plane.


Gymnasts should the spatial aspect of extension to accelerate or decelerate while rotating. The speed at which a gymnast will rotate around an axis will get faster as the radius gets shorter.  Those who use turns or spins such as the spinning figure skater or rotating gymnast should stay in a tucked position while rotating in order to turn quickly.  If the skater or gymnast “untucks” or extends the arms and legs away from the torso the rotation speed will decrease.  For example, a gymnast could take their off their chest straighten their back and legs and arms when ending a forward roll and finishing in a standing position.


Rotation can also be performed on apparatus.  Here, the apparatus becomes the radius of rotation.  For example, learners could turn around a balance beam, rope, or bar.




Balance should include static and dynamic balance.  Students could begin by learning to move and stop in a balanced or “athletic” position with the ankles, knees and hips bent, back straight and eyes focused forward. They should feel some tension in their muscles. They should learn to hold their body still for about three seconds. It is often helpful for them to count with three or four syllable words (e.g., one alligator, two alligator) in order to stay still long enough.  As students gain control over their balances counting can be eliminated. 


Students learn how to identify their center of gravity. They should demonstrate stillness with their center of gravity over a variety of stable bases of support (weight distributed equally over each supporting body part). Students should learn that a wider base of support is more stable than a narrower base of support, They should also understand that a lower center of gravity is more stable than a higher one. Teachers should also emphasize momentary stillness, countertension, counterbalance, going off balance and regaining body control, and linking balance to movement. 


Counterbalance is when the gymnast’s center of gravity remains outside the base of support. A gymnast can perform counterbalance with a partner by leaning in and pushing against each other.  Countertension involves two (or more) gymnasts pulling away from each other with their center of gravity outside their base of support.  Counterbalance and countertension can also be done by leaning into or away form a piece of apparatus.


Students should also learn to balance upright (head higher than hips), inverted (head lower than hips) and symmetrically and asymmetrically.  During symmetrical balances both sides of the body are the same (e.g., a headstand).  Asymmetrical balance requires that one side of the body is different.   Finally, students should practice going off balance by shifting or changing the base of support and moving slightly out of the balance.


Students can perform all of these balances with partners or on apparatus. Ropes, bars, benches, boxes, and beams can be used for students to hang and support themselves completely or partially on apparatus.


Locomotor and Non-locomotor Movement


Travel can include locomotor (e.g., rocking, rolling, jumping/flight/landing, step, sliding, climbing) and non locomotor movement (balance/off balance, counterbalance, countertension, hang, swing, spin-step-jump and circle turns, curl, stretch, and twist) as well as weight transfer to hands or wheeling action (e.g., cartwheels, roundoffs, handstands, mule kicks and so forth). Advanced gymnasts might perform springing movements such as front and back handsprings. It should be noted that rolls, cartwheels and somersaults are turns. A spin turn means going around a fixed body part.  A circle turn means going around a bar.  A step turn is a turn made by shifting weight from one body part to another. 


Jumping, flight and landing are essential skills for students to master. Beginning gymnasts will explore the five different foot patterns while jumping and landing (i.e., two feet to two feet, one foot to two feet, two feet to one foot, leaping off the left to right foot and leaping with the right to left foot). Expert gymnasts may participate in vaulting and hurdling.  While in flight, gymnasts may create a variety of body shapes (e.g., wide, twisted, symmetrical and so on) while moving through high, medium and low levels.  Students should emphasize absorbing force by giving with the ankles, knees and hips during landing.  Alternatively, advanced gymnasts may demonstrate force absorption beginning with the hands and then the rest of the body (e.g., dive roll).


Novice gymnasts should explore traveling through space in a variety of ways (e.g., bear walk, crab walk, wiggling like a worm, crawling and so forth).  At this time teachers can invite students to travel using a given number of body parts (e.g., one, two, three and so on) in order to explore traveling with the hands and feet.


Having a certain body type will make it difficult for some students to perform a traditional cartwheel, handstand or roundoff. Therefore, we should encourage student to simply practice taking weight on hands to the extent that their body will allow. 


As students begin to combine movements into sequences they should develop continuity or a continuous flow to a gymnastics sequence. Combining balance, rotation, locomotor and non-locomotor movement with smooth or free flowing transitions creates a more aesthetically pleasing and interesting performance.  Students can practice blending movements into each other.  A sliding movement (i.e., side gallop), for example could blend into a cartwheel. Gymnasts can also use the movement framework to combine balance, rotation and travel. For example, a gymnast might accelerate and then decelerate (effort aspect) while performing a forward roll then place the hands and head into a stable base of support and move into a headstand.  Another student might blend a backward (space aspect) crabwalk into a backward roll.


In summary, educational gymnastics:


  • Focuses on natural actions of children and overall body management, developing skills within each child’s ability and limits
  • Is process focused, stresses creative behavior (divergent thinking), and develops original and aesthetically pleasing sequences
  • Uses many different pieces of apparatus
  • Allows for sequences to be developed individually or by partners and small groups on the floor with no equipment, with single pieces of apparatus, or with many pieces of apparatus
  • Emphasizes individual responses to open ended tasks, arranged to provide progressive experience and allowing access to all


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