• Girl chases after a Sphero robot
  • Student prepares to present an activity to the class
  • A cluster of Spheros

A class of fifth-graders spreads out across the baseline in the gym at Felida Elementary. The students eagerly await instructions on a game of tag. This isn’t your typical tag, however. This is where PE gets high tech.

The tagger is a small orb-shaped robot called a Sphero that illuminates and rolls. Students use their district-issued iPads and an app to code a set of instructions for the Sphero and their classmates to follow. In this case, the robot pursues their classmates as they sprint up and down the gym in an attempt to elude it.

“It’s not like a human that runs out of energy,” said fifth-grader Chase Fitzwilson of the Spheros. “I feel like it’s really cool that you can make a robot do what you want it to do.”

“Coding can help with your imagination. It can go anywhere.”

—Fifth-grader Brynnlee Williams

“You can code anything you want…”

Working mostly in small teams, students spent four weeks coding the game of tag and other activities involving Spheros. The teams presented their activities to their classmates in early December. Following coded commands, the students ran, crawled across the gym floor, hopped up and down and did jumping jacks and pushups. It’s a workout for the body and mind.

Schools across the district are practicing computer coding and using Spheros as part of a community-directed and community-supported emphasis on technology. Spheros had been used in the classroom, but not in P.E. That changed when Matt Greco, an instructional technology facilitator who supports schools in their use of iPads and digital tools, saw the potential to combine the two subjects and approached P.E. teacher Devin Cast.

Most of the students at Felida had only limited exposure to coding, if any at all, prior to attempting it in P.E. So Greco began the first lesson honestly: “‘You’re going to fail about 10 times in the next 10 minutes. Or maybe more.’

“They go, ‘What?’ They get really frustrated with that comment from me.”

As with the process of learning any language, however, computer coding rewards dedication. And with the students’ growing knowledge came awareness of the possibilities as they worked together to code variations on games like Simon Says; Red Light, Green Light; and a scavenger hunt.

“You can code anything you want if you just set your mind to it,” said fifth-grader Nyah Nelson.

The task also enriched students’ teamwork, communication and tenacity—skills and traits that are essential in the workforce. And that may be the biggest takeaway from the lesson.

Greco checks in with students at the end. “I ask, ‘How frustrated were you?’

“ ‘A lot.’

“ ‘But how excited were you that you succeeded?’

“They go, ‘We forgot all about that we failed!’

“That’s one skill we try to push into all their classes later on, whether it’s math, history, science,” Greco continued. “Even if you fail, you just keep going. It shouldn’t matter if you make that mistake. The point is that you succeeded later on with what you’re trying to accomplish.”

Said fifth-grader Brynnlee Williams, “You can do really fun things with Spheros, and coding can help with your imagination. It can go anywhere.”