In my previous post - Play Centres: A Better Way - I introduced the idea of small-sided game centres for children aged 5-11. I'd like to see them take the place of all leagues and team-based coaching for this age-group.

Importantly, Play Centres are very different from the school playground or street/park football. Although they recreate the same type of learning experience, they would be managed by skilled adults who ensure that football learning is maximised for all children. Therefore, key to the introduction of Play Centres would be the education and training of Play Centre Managers. A specific Play Centre Manager course and qualification would be designed, and could include the following 8 modules:

1. Organising the environment

This includes setting-up the physical environment, which essentially means setting out appropriately-sized small-sided pitches and surrounding them with footballs! But it could also include adjusting the space and dimensions according to the numbers of children, and creating a set of modified small-sided games which are simple to understand and allow extension and variety to learning through exploration and discovery (e.g. line ball game, four-goal game etc).

Without coaching, the environment will be the main teacher of the children. They will learn through exploring the environment. Therefore the environment needs to be absolutely perfect before any children arrive. This role could be likened to the job of designing a children's playground: Of course it needs to be safe and varied, but essentially it needs to be simple and children need to look at a game and be able to recognise what to do without tuition. A good adventure playground activity may also invite the children to use their imagination to create their own unique game to play. Equipment should be moveable so children and Play Centre staff can switch things about easily. 

Course tuition on this module would certainly include children. Participants could undertake a piece of research on learning in small-sided games. They could attempt to quantify the children's learning opportunities in games. This could be to count numbers of touches, dribbles, decisions in games per child for example. Part of the research could be to examine how their definition of "learning opportunity" is affected by adding an extra player, or by switching the equipment (such as turning the goals round so they are back-to-back). The key learning outcome for the participants would be to understand the effect the environment (in terms of space, rules/task, equipment, numbers/people) has on the potential development of the children, and to create an environment which maximises learning for all children taking part.

2. Grouping children

As I've said already, children are reliant on each other when learning football. This is because football is an opposed game. Some people on the other team are trying to get the ball from you, and you have some people on your team who are helping you. Learning is seriously inhibited if some of those people are either far more advanced than you, or far behind you - regardless of how old they are.

Children must be grouped appropriately, and small-sided games need to group children of similar levels together. The challenge is how to recognise what level each child is at. This is a skill that needs training for most of us. This module would include watching groups of children play, and trying to invent a criteria for how best to group them. Course participants would soon learn that there is no magic formula, and that any one criteria alone does not give us all the information we need.

The learning outcomes for the participants would be to understand that age is not a suitable measure to group children by; to recognise when a child in a game is struggling and why, and when a child is finding things too easy and needs a more difficult challenge; and to recognise and respond to changes in learning need (and therefore groupings) that happen often for all children, sometimes suddenly and without warning.

3. Interventions

Play Centre Managers would need to have a variety of intervention options available to them in order to maintain a great learning environment for all children. Examples of interventions are: Enforcing a switch of goalkeeper every 5 minutes, changing a 4v4 into a 5v3, creating a "safe zone" in a game where children can't be tackled. There are many options. Essentially any adult enforced change or stoppage to a usual game of football can be deemed an intervention.

Key to choosing if, how and when to intervene in the children's games is recognising the needs of the children. This is done by observing what is happening in their games. Participants on this module would need to learn how to recognise symptoms of boredom for example, as well as understand the root cause and how to solve the problem. A more difficult skill might be to identify a group need - such as a need to scan before receiving the ball - and develop (or alter) a game so that it can teach this need implicitly. 

The ideal state of play for children (in order to learn football) is one where all children are immersed in intense play. A state of flow exists when a child is in this state. Flow states would not normally happen for a beginner child, but it is possible. Recognising when children are in this state of flow is key to knowing when and how to intervene in their game: Children in flow need to be left alone to play. Knowing when not to intervene is just as important as knowing when to intervene.

The learning outcomes for the participants on this module would be to deliver appropriate interventions which enhance the football learning environment. This could be taught on the course by observing children play. Perhaps it would be a good module to look at a specific case-study, so each participant was observing one particular child and assessing that child's interaction with the environment. Interventions could then be discussed, options experimented with, and results observed.

4. Maximising Learning Time

If we believe that learning football happens by playing football, then we need to ensure that playtime is not wasted by interruptions such as: late starts, long breaks, ball retrieval, lengthy instructions, lengthy drink breaks, early finishes etc. There is no reason why an hour's football time shouldn't equal at least 50 minutes of actual playtime. Let them play!

There is an art to maximising football time, and it can be learnt and taught. Participants on this module of the course could experience being in a session that has a poor % Active Learning Time. They should experience the frustration of wanting to play but not being allowed to! They would also analyse, feedback and review each other's activities and interventions with groups of children to enhance their understanding of how to maximise learning time.

Learning outcomes for the participants on this module of the course would be to demonstrate ways to get children playing in appropriate games within a minute of arriving at the Centre (e.g. At MoF we do that my having group registers on the door, with each group assigned a colour bib and a playing area); keeping interventions quick and effective with a minimum level of intrusion; and delivering an environment where at least 80% of the children's time is spent in Active Learning.

This module would also look at the difference between playing indoors v outdoors to the % of "ball-in-play" time in games. This module could teach participants the value of indoor football - especially in the winter. 

5. Inclusion, Ownership and Choice

Children need to have a voice in their own football. And they need to have a choice in what and how they play. These fundamental values need to find expression in every Play Centre. It is easier said than done. Firstly it is often hard to find a way to accurately capture the views of children, and secondly it is difficult to know how to bring those views and ideas out in what you offer them.

Play Centre Managers would need skills to design ways of capturing the views of children. This module could look at ways of doing this - by actually doing it (rather than talking about doing it)! Once children's views have been captured, participants would need the ability to translate the messages into the environment they deliver at their Play Centre - without contradicting the values or inhibiting game-based learning.

To thoroughly understand the importance of Inclusion to football, participants would need to appreciate the way that learning happens for most children. This is clearly hard to do in real time, but studies can be found that show what happens to those deemed elite at a young age. Professional football club academies are a good place to look to understand what happens to the talented youngsters that are identified at ages 8 or 10. A learning outcome for the participants on this module would be to appreciate that learning happens suddenly and often unpredictably, and to design programmes that give all children an equal and fair chance to learn (i.e. not just the best one!). 

6. Working with parents

This is a huge area of learning for many adults involved in football, and one that is totally over-looked in current courses. Parents are absolutely intergral to setting the play environment for children aged 5-11. For example, conversations with parents on the way to/from football sessions can affect how the child learns in the sessions themselves. And of course, anxious parents on the sideline giving instruction will determine the kind of decisions the child makes in games.

One of the main messages of this module is that working with parents from the very beginning will dramatically reduce potential future problems. Another is that an ongoing dialogue with parents is an essential part of the role of a Play Centre Manager. (See our For Parents page for some of the key messages).

This module would examine what we mean when we say Parent Education, and would give participants information and methods of interaction with parents that they can use in practice. In particular, participants would need solutions for dealing with poor parent sideline behaviour. Learning outcomes for the participants would also include: understanding the anxiety of parenthood; setting a physical environment which removes parents from the sidelines; including parents in Play Centre decisions (e.g. formats, competition, timings, cost).

7. Competition

Short-duration competition would be a key part of the overall Play Centre programme. This module would look at why competition is important in learning, and what makes good competition for 5-11 year olds. As in module 5, an aspect of this module could be listening to children's (and their families) views and designing a programme based on their views.

Competition can provide a thrilling experience for children. And, in the absense of football exams, it can provide us (and the children) with an opportunity to test and evaluate how far we've come and what we need next. The danger of competition though is that parents and spectators can take it too seriously and become fixated with the scoreline and with winning. This is something that needs very careful management, and creating a positive competition environment would comprise a large chunk of this module.

Learning outcomes for the participants would include: understanding the role of competition in the development of the child; designing competitions in-line with the key Play Centre values of learning, inclusion, relevance, and child governance; organising small-sided mini-tournaments (including grouping children into teams and teams into leagues); using competition to identify learning needs; and working with parents to create an atmosphere of excitement without anxiety.

8. Child Protection, documentation and processes

Child Protection is part of the FA Level 1 certificate, and is taught to all coaches in probably the most boring workshop in history. To be fair, it is a hard topic to make fun. I do think though that it could be made more relevant, and also more thorough. A Child Protection module specifically for a Play Centre environment has the potential to get very in-depth as all participants would be operating in very similar circumstances.

In my experience, the NSPCC are much more advanced and detailed in the area of Child Protection than the FA. I would suggest planning this module with their input, and looking at some actual case-study environments offered by participants on the course in advance.

This module would also cover all the essential Child Protection documentation and processes relevant to a Play Centre. Participants would need to undertake a Risk Assessment for example, and understand the process of creating a Code of Conduct for Spectators with the input of the parents of children at their Centre.

Qualification and Assessment

I don't think any assessment should happen on the course. In my experience it distracts from participants (and tutors!) being experimental. I like the way the FA Youth Module courses are assessed: A tutor comes to visit the participants centre and assesses what they actually see happen there against the learning outcomes of the course.

In addition to this, I think another aspect of the Assessment should be for the participant to visit another Play Centre and deliver an assessment to them. This would help in the sharing of ideas and knowledge, and in building relationships between Centres.

Course delivery

Eight modules, offered separately, with assessment once all eight modules are attended. Each module could be covered in a day I imagine, some might take two. 

What do people think? Leave a comment and let me know.

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  By Mark Carter, November 2012

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Mark Carter

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