Teaching Games for Understanding

Bunker and Thorpe (1986) developed an interesting, entertaining and innovative model for creating a curriculum by reversing the traditional method after they realized that physical education instructions which focused on talent and performance had little impact on success and that students were constantly asking the question “When are we playing already?” during skill training.  While the technical skill has to be developed first for success in the traditional approach, the model called “Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU)” which is the most widely used game-centered model (Memmert et al., 2015), predicts that skill is acquired naturally when the tactical knowledge needed to play the modified game begins to be understood. Hopper & Kruisselbrink (2001) refer to the term “tactical-to-skill domain” to explain the sequence of nodes in the model.

The essence of this approach is to create meaningful competitive games that intrinsically motivate the participants to learn the rules, to solve problems, to make decisions and acquire the necessary skills to perform. It puts emphasis on skill development through tactical awareness without the need to separately teach each one.

There are six stages in the model (Bunker & Thorpe, 1986):

  • Game: A game with its own rules and competition that specifies the goals to be taught will be modified and explained to the students.
  • Game Appreciation: The participants begin to gradually understand the rules of the modified game and gradually understand the most important rules that constitute the game. They also deduct the skills they must use during the game.
  • Tactical Awareness: The tactics and strategies that must be employed to get the upper hand over the opponent are found and/or explained by the coach.
  • Decision Making: With increasing understanding of the rules and tactical knowledge about the game, decision-making competencies begin to develop. Players begin to deliberately choose the skillset to use as well as how to use it.
  • Skill Execution: The skills required to reach the objective(s) of the game and outplay the opponent executed upon.
  • Performance: The outcome of the learned skill or strategy is observed.

The model can be adapted to four game categories: 1) Target Games, 2) Net/Wall Games, 3) Striking/Fielding Games and 4) Invasion games. The aim is to teach how to play by simplifying and redesigning the adult version of the games according to the students’ needs. The playing field can be narrowed and/or widened, the number of players can be reduced, new rules and equipment not included in the original game can be added. (Siedentop & Tannehill, 2000). In the original proposal of TGfU, it was to be implemented as a linear model. In the course of time, changes were suggested with various research (Kirk & MacPhail, 2002; Méndez-Giménez et al., 2012).

TGfU is not only used for game related cognitive (tactical awareness, critical thinking, decision making) and motor skill development (Butler, 2006; Mitchell et al., 2003; Mesquita et.al., 2012) but also to obtain social learning outcomes (Holt et al., 2007). In their recent study, Alcala & Garijo (2017) found that TGfU significantly increased the students’ academic performance.

The social constructivism that forms the theoretical background of  TGfU (Griffin et al., 2005; Kirk and MacPhail, 2002) emphasizes that the learning process takes place unconsciously during the activity which Lave and Wenger (1991) call “legitimate peripheral participation”. Active participation in a social setting triggers learning (Rovengo, 1999).

Entertaining games that are developed with TGfU diminish the importance of the skills level of the participants and motivate everyone to participate in the game (Light and Georgakis, 2005), thus enabling active learning (Webb et al. 2006). The activities should be designed in a similar way to the situations that students encounter in real life. TGfU brought about a significant change, making instruction models that utilize memorization and repetition obsolete (Wiggins, 1998).



Alcalá, D. H., & Garijo, A. H. (2017). Teaching games for understanding: A comprehensive approach to promote student’s motivation in physical education. Journal of human kinetics, 59(1), 17-27.

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Butler, J. I. (2006). Curriculum constructions of ability: enhancing learning through Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU) as a curriculum model. Sport, Education and Society11(3), 243-258.

Griffin, L. and J. Butler (2005). Teaching Games for Understanding: theory, research, and practice. Champaign: Human Kinetics.

Holt, N. L., Tamminen, K. A., & Jones, M. I. (2007). Promoting Positive Youth Development Through Teaching Games in Physical Education. Physical & Health Education Journal, 73(3).

Hopper, T., & Kruisselbrink, D. (2001). Teaching games for understanding: What does it look like and how does it influence student skill acquisition and game performance. Journal of Teaching Physical Education12, 2-29.

Kirk, D., and A. MacPhail. 2002. Teaching games for understanding and situated learning: Rethinking the Bunker-Thorpe model. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education 21: 177–92.

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Light, R., & Georgakis, S. (2005). Integrating theory and practice in teacher education: The impact of a Game Sense unit on female pre-service primary teachers’ attitudes towards teaching physical education. New Zealand Physical Educator38(1), 67.

Memmert, D., Almond, L., Bunker, D., Butler, J., Fasold, F., Griffin, L., , Hillmann, W., Hüttermann, S., Klein-Soetebier, T., König, S., Nopp, S., Rathschlag, M., Schul, K., Schwab, S., Thorpe R. & Furley, P ( (2015). Top 10 research questions related to teaching games for understanding. Research quarterly for exercise and sport86(4), 347-359.

Méndez-Giménez, A., Fernández-Río, J., & Casey, A. (2012). Using the TGFU tactical hierarchy to enhance student understanding of game play. Expanding the Target Games category.(El uso de la jerarquía táctica de TGFU para mejorar la comprensión del juego de los estudiantes. Ampliando la categoría de juegos de diana). Cultura_Ciencia_Deporte7(20), 135-141.

Mesquita, I., Farias, C., & Hastie, P. (2012). The impact of a hybrid sport education–invasion games competence model soccer unit on students’ decision making, skill execution and overall game performance. European Physical Education Review18(2), 205-219.

Mitchell, S., Oslin, J. & Griffin L. L. (2003). Sport foundations for elementary physical education: A Tactical Games Approach. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

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Webb, P., Pearson, P., & Forrest, G. (2006). Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU) in primary and secondary physical education. International Conference for Health, Physical Education Recreation, Sport and Dance, 1st Oceanic Congress Wellington. New Zealand.

Wiggins, G. (1998). Educative Assessment. Designing Assessments to Inform and Improve Student Performance. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, CA.