Interview with Jonathan Bhowmick (JB)
With a renewed focus on curriculum this year, Anita Devi (AD) caught up with Actions Mats to ask more about how we support pupils with special educational needs and disability (SEND) in Physical Education (PE), as part of the inclusion agenda and active lifestyles.
AD: Hi Jonathan, thank you for your time today. Tell us a little about yourself.
JB: Hi Anita Well, I am the designer and founder of Action Mats. My background is playground design and working with a school, I was asked by the headteacher to design a solution for engaging pupils for whom English is an additional language (EAL). Hence Action Mats were born. The mats are a unique PE and active-learning resource created for children between 4 and 11 years old. The thinking behind Action Mats is to create fitness stations. These can used in multiple configurations. They enable ALL pupils to engage in the PE curriculum as well as participate in team building challenges and competitive games. What we have also discovered since from user feedback is Action Mats work well for pupils with a special educational need and disability. In effect, we have fulfilled our AIM in creating Action Inclusive Mats.
AD: How long have you been operating?
JB: Action Mats was launched in October 2017 and we are now in over one hundred schools in four countries. They were originally created for EAL pupils. Our vision is for them engage in the lessons and so feel part of the school community. The unique feature of Action Mats is the simple, yet fun, instructional graphics and symbols printed on each mat. Children of all ages, from any country, can understand these graphics without the need for explanation or translation. This empowers children, giving them the ability to work independently or collaboratively, without the need for teacher/ adult input. Action Mats are active members of Youth Sports Trust, the Association for Physical Education and UK Active.
AD: Did you test the mats with the children?
JB: We tested the Action Mats quite extensively. In late September 2019, we ran a new trial session at a primary school in Hertfordshire to test our active-learning mats, which incorporate the literacy and numeracy packs. Thirty-two children in year 4 (8-year olds) tested our level 2 challenge jigsaw race mats. Each challenge includes sixteen activities. The activity was delivered as a race. So, the pupils carry random pieces jigsaw pieces over a course of fitness stations to reach the ‘build zone’. In the Build-Zone, pupils must connect the piece they carry to existing pieces already there. The class was a mixed ability group.
AD: Sounds like quite a high-pace activity?
JB: It is. However, from a designer’s point of view, the successful completion of the jigsaw is rather secondary. The objective is for pupils to engage fully in the exercises on each mat. We want our children to be active and see sport, as an important lifestyle choice. A secondary objective is for the whole team to coalesce in the jigsaw build zone to assemble the pieces as a team, collectively. The game fosters teamwork on two levels, during the race section and working together to achieve a common goal. Ideally before the other team.
AD: What did you learn from this new trial?
JB: I was really pleased with how successful the game was. The rationale behind the idea worked perfectly and, as the photos testify, the children were completely engrossed in the challenge. In particular, the children shared they preferred the numeracy tasks linked to Action Mats and found it helped their concentration. School leadership commented, “We found the sense of purpose linked to PE activities helpful or children’s learning and we believe teachers could use this accessible resource in many different ways, to engage the children”. As a follow-up, Action Mats was invited to run an active session at a PE Conference in Worcestershire at which we invited twenty PE Teachers to participate in the same game. There was some initial reluctance, but once the teachers got into it, they found it more challenging than they had originally thought. Their competitive side also surfaced. We found their feedback useful.
Winning is important to me, but what brings me real joy is the experience of being fully engaged in whatever I’m doing – Phil Jackson
AD: The jigsaw appears to also help the slow down rest period, after an intense period of activity. Is that how they were designed? What is the recommended warm up to the fitness stations?
JB: In this scenario, the objective was to race the other team. However, it is possible to use the jigsaw for downtime. The Action Mat stations are used for the warm-up through a circuit-based activity.
AD: Can you give us an example where the mats have benefited children with special educational needs and disability (SEND)?
JB: Action Mats are be used by some special schools and we have anecdotal feedback about impact for SEND in mainstream schools. This is an are we are currently developing.
(Source: Sport England, 2018)
AD: London 2012, enabled us as a nation to take sport to a new level. Our pledge was to “Inspire a generation”. Yet, in 2018 Sport England reported just over 40% of children in England do an average of more than 60 minutes of physical activity a day. Our Active Lives Children and Young People Survey (2018), which was the first of its kind carried out by Ipsos MORI, showed that around 3 million children (43.3%) lead active lives. However, of that group, only 1.2 million (17.5%) are meeting the Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines of more than 60 minutes of activity a day, every day of the week. So, there is clearly a need to do more. The report also concluded an insignificant difference in the amount of sport and physical activity that takes place inside school, compared to activity levels outside of school. Both have a critical role to play. With 22% of children active for at least 30 minutes per day outside of school, while 28% of children do so in school. How do you think Action Mats can contribute to the national agenda for children of ‘being active and staying healthy’?
Life need not have limits – Richard Whitehead, a British athlete and Paralympian
JB: Action Mats can be delivered through structured teacher-led pedagogy. The mats come with easy-to-follow activity cards. Action Mats can also have high impact through learner-led activities. So, the mats cover both differentiation and personalisation. In some schools, Action Mats have promoted Family Fitness Sessions, where parents/carers join their children for stay healthy exercise sessions. This helps promote good family relationships and positive role models, as well active lifestyles outside school. Action Mats are portal and on suitable external surfaces can be used outside, in the fresh air.
(Source: Sports England, 2017)
AD: At #TeamADL, our vision is ‘Everyone thriving in education, employment and life’. We were therefore concerned when we read in the 2015/16 survey 51% of adults with three or more impairments are inactive compared with 21% of those without a disability. So, my final question to you, what can we do differently to increase activity for those with impairments?
JB: Take the principles of Action Mats and apply them widely. In other words, simplicity, accessibility and inclusivity. Richard Whitehead, a British athlete and Paralympian once said, “Life need not have limits”. This is so true of the philosophy of Action Mats. The mats are enablers for children to stretch themselves that little bit further, with the hope it becomes a lifestyle choice for their adulthood. Do check out our video and hear what teachers and PE specialists have said.
AD: Thank you Jonathan once again for your time. We wish you the very best going forward. Keep us posted of any updates!
To find out more about Action Mats visit: https://www.actionmats.co.uk/
Chrispina Wilson from #TeamADL is also actively involved in supporting healthy lifestyles and reducing obesity for all children and young people. Contact us to find out more.