The value of dodgeball in a K-12 setting can be as divisive for educators as the no-cross line between two teams playing the game itself, with one question often finding itself front-and-center: Should dodgeball be eliminated from physical education for encouraging bullying or is there a place for it in curriculum?
No place in curriculum
For many, the answer is “absolutely not.”
“It doesn’t support a positive school climate, the application of appropriate social behaviors or the goals of physical education,” said Michelle Carter, senior program manager for the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE) and a former P.E. teacher, who pointed out that the sport, as traditionally played, is both an aggressive elimination game and uses human targets.
Sherri Widen, director of research for the Committee for Children, a nonprofit organization focused on SEL and bullying prevention, agreed. “The game is set up to reduce empathetic responses to another’s suffering, given that the goal is to hit other kids with the ball,” she said.
Some see SEL opportunities
Others think dodgeball is similar to traditional American sports in its aggressive nature but can still be used to teach empathy.
Steven Ross Murray, director of the Physical Education Program at the University of California, Berkeley, pointed out, “Some sports are viewed as extremely ‘aggressive’ — say the martial arts — yet in reality they are excellent sports to use to teach students how to handle aggression positively and productively.”
Dodgeball, he said, can fall in this category.
Bill Casey, chair of the P.E. department at Neuqua Valley High School in Illinois, recalled one such opportunity during a recent incident in his school involving a football player throwing a soft foam ball at a girl’s chest instead of her legs, as the rules of the game required.
“The teacher was shocked and talked to the student who threw the ball, asking [him] to consider what just happened,” Casey said. “This discussion would create a different way of thinking.”
Having the thrower hold the ball, asking him or her to reflect on why breaking the rules was a bad idea, and giving the thrower a chance to put him or herself in the shoes of the receiver could be a way to facilitate a meaningful discussion around social-emotional learning.
Widen admitted that there could be opportunities to support SEL skills in dodgeball, but that they are “limited at best.”
Structure, balance and purpose key across physical ed
“It may be possible to limit some of the negative impact of dodgeball by changing some of the rules,” Widen said, like assigning students to the teams rather than letting the team captains choose or allowing students to rejoin the game by being tagged in by a teammate who has just been hit. “But, there are a lot of other games and sports that are less likely to facilitate victimization and bullying which also encourage teamwork, skill-building, and maybe even SEL.”
Stephanie Fredrick, associate director of the University of Buffalo's Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention, said while there has been “virtually no research to show” the possible link between dodgeball and bullying in the U.S., aggression and bullying are not specific to dodgeball — rather, they surface in overall unstructured environments, including school hallways and gym class.
Explicit instruction around the rules of the game before it begins, laying out expected and inappropriate behavior, enforcing those expectations throughout the game by revoking privileges for students not abiding by the rules, and reinforcing positive behavior can all curb the chances of bullying throughout the game.
However, Carter said, the game still “places a power imbalance” between players.
“Usually the people who excel in dodgeball are athletic, and the quick, easy targets are less athletic and are not as fast,” Carter said. “The larger percentage of students fit in the latter category, and those are the students who we want to be physically active.” But dodgeball is designed to purposely eliminate those students and expose the athletic skill gap.
And while this “certainly is true,” Fredrick said, the same could be said for many traditional games including football and tag. “I think a lot of our traditional sports tend to tailor themselves to boys with good hand-eye coordination.”
Fredrick instead suggests balancing “traditional” sports throughout the curriculum with activities that require other skill sets, like yoga.
The bottom line, Fredrick said, should be, “What is the purpose of the game or activity — is it to get physical education, and to get students to have good sportsmanship? Is dodgeball going to help with that purpose?”