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This time the BMJ report on policy makers’ neglect of children’s activity

I’m writing this on the day that yet another report on lack of activity amongst children hits the headlines. This one features in the BMJ. It’s the 4th major report this year. The message they all carry is alarming. Nike present the concern wonderfully well in this video that was part of a report they commissioned on children’s activity levels.
These reports always prompt debate about the ‘solution’ and this is where the discourse appears misguided. The debate is framed in adult language – kids need EXERCISE because it’s GOOD FOR THEM. These medicinal messages are difficult to ‘sell’ to kids (and adults – look at the drop off in gym attendance once the new year resolutions have worn off in February). Kids sport and activity needs to be about the quality of the here and now. Children need to develop physical competency in an entirely positive environment. These competencies are key as they prevent what is referred to as the ‘proficiency barrier’. Not many of us engage with activities that we don’t feel that we are ‘good’ at so just ask yourself, ‘if my kid doesn’t catch very well, how many activities will s/he not engage with as they get older?’ At mi sport, we’ve been pushing this message since 2004. It’s finally catching on and has recently been summed up beautifully in this video from Sport Wales.

So this Christmas, give your kids the gift of activity. Details of our mi sport Christmas and New Year camp can be found here.

Sedate 7 year olds

The recent UCL research report into children’s activity levels, at best, allows us to revisit some interesting questions or, more critically, provides further evidence (if more is needed) that we continue to get things very wrong when it comes to kids sport and physical activity.

In case you missed the coverage, the headline finding was that only half of seven year olds meet the recommended daily levels of activity (60 minutes) to maintain good health. In other words half lead pretty sedate lives. The media also tuned into the gender disparity revealed – only a 1/3 of girls compared to almost 2/3rds of boys. There were also some interesting statistics on regional and ethnic variance.

There’s nothing new in the findings that boys are more active than girls (although from what I understand some of the research methods were innovative). Coincidently, the gender split in candidates sitting GCSE PE each year is always around 1/3rd girls compared to 2/3rds boys. I wonder if they’re the same 1/3rd

So what’s going on? I’m not sure the media coverage including ‘expert’ interviews arrived at insightful answers. On the contrary, the discourse tends to focus on over generalized, highly simplistic, explanations to a complex issue. Below, I ask one or two different questions that demand different answers.

The first question is ‘so what’? Does it matter how active seven year olds are? This is rarely asked because it’s assumed that it does matter but when unpicked, many of these assumptions don’t really stand up or are highly problematic. Let me examine some….

The health arguments always come first and these are closely linked to the ‘obesity crisis’. Of course, little bodies that move a lot are likely to be healthier than little bodies that don’t if all other factors (diet, sleep, physical/social/emotional environment etc) are equal – big IF. But, and here’s the BUT, it’s a message that simply doesn’t work with kids of any age (or size), let alone 6 year olds. It’s the medicinal message. ‘Do this because it’s good for you – and you’ll notice the benefits in 10,20,30+ years’. No – kids are about instant gratification not some ‘sensible’ notion of investment. In my university work, I have never come across a PE/Sport student who remained active throughout childhood because it was ‘good for them’.

‘But it is good for them’  I hear you say. To which I’d respond by linking policy with practice. If the policy is driven by a message that doesn’t connect with kids, neither will practice so all those attempts to construct a more ‘active’ child population will, at best, have a superficial, short term impact. After all, are we really going to reach children’s hearts and minds with WALK TO SCHOOL schemes?

Post 2012, activity is often used interchangeably with sport. Sport has an elevated position when it comes to physical activity. Here again, we find a plethora of assumed benefits many of which sit at the heart of legacy discourse. Sport is espoused as a wonderful arena for children to develop certain essential life traits and attributes such as determination to succeed, learning to compete, developing teamwork etc. Further justification is then provided by linking these to national productivity, so the message reads an active/sporty population can drive GDP (and reduce spending on the NHS). The ‘character building’ stuff runs deep in political-common-sense going back to the Public Schools of the early Victorian era. It doesn’t run very deep in evidence. If it stood up, public life would be full of ex elite sportspeople as they’d have all the necessary tools to succeed in business, politics etc.

Talking of elite sport, that’s another oft-cited claim – we need children to be active, as somewhere within the masses we’ll find the next Mo, Bradley or Jessica. Once again, this argument defies logic let alone evidence. Last year saw GB’s most successful Olympic medal haul ever yet we have a largely sedate child population. Team GB women were particularly successful and yet girls are more sedate than boys. The sustained and unprecedented levels of investment in elite sport directed at a small number of carefully identified athletes probably had far more impact in bringing home the medals than children running around at playtime.

Myths surround the ‘solutions’ too. Media discussions and public policy both tend to focus primarily on the provision of OPPORTUNITY. Opportunity is undoubtedly distributed unequally but surely not all the sedate 7-year-old girls in the UCL study have restricted opportunity. The rationale behind ‘opportunity’ policy is that if it’s available more kids will chose it. This scenario ignores the key component, namely, the quality of the experience.

As a physical educator I think there are good reasons why children should be active they are just not the ones regularly referred to in the national debate. The reasons I believe in can be summed up in three words: PLAY, MOVE, LEARN.

Play is an essential feature of childhood. It’s an internationally recognized right according to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It’s also a site of gross social inequality. If we go back to my point above about policy and practice, the landscape may look very different if we spoke to children in terms of play rather than in adult talk that focuses on ‘exercise’ and ‘fitness’. Physical play connects – it connects children with their environments, their peers and most of all, it connects a child to his/her body. The physical becomes a passport to fun not merely something that must be used so it doesn’t breakdown or lose its shape. And through physical play, kids learn loads.

So what’s going on and should we be alarmed?

It’s safe to say that despite supposed advancements in gender equality, the physical arena is still highly genderised. When 2/3rds of little girls are picking up messages that physical activity is not for them, we need to look very closely at precisely what their experiences are because what the UCL report reveals is that in their own time, 6 and 7 year old girls ‘chose’ not to engage with physical activity. These are kids on the cusp of the period in their lives when they should be acquiring the most skill at the most rapid rate (7-11 year olds). A downward spiral of lack of activity, lack of opportunity to develop skilled movement, lack of confidence, further lack of participation etc is not beyond the realms of probability.

But let’s not forget that there’s a significant number of boys who are not running around much too – 36%. We need to address the values and messages that surround physical activity, it’s relationship with sport, body shape and competence, and work towards inclusive, child focused models of each. Unfortunately, the personnel that are all too often responsible for policy and practice in children’s sport and physical activity are simply ill prepared to effect positive change.

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Have we lost our soul? (21.12.12)

On the day when most people are putting school behind them for a couple of weeks, I thought I’d share some reflections on where we seem to be at when it comes to teaching and learning in PE.

I appreciate that as a teacher educator I write from a privileged position. I’m not caught up in the hurley-burley of school life and I don’t have to worry constantly about pleasing/appeasing Ofsted, or more accurately what my school managers THINK Ofsted would make of my practice. My job also allows me time to read, think and critically reflect on practice.

This ‘state of the nation’ reflection is based on practice I observe in schools and, interestingly, practice that is reflected by people applying to study PGCE (post grad teacher education). I receive hundreds of application for PGCE PE. Most applicants are already working in schools. Those that are invited to interview are asked to teach their peers. This is a fascinating exercise as what we on the panel see, is their interpretation of what make great PE based on what they see and hear at school. This is characterised by the following…

So what’s my beef?

 Despite all this ‘effort’ practice hasn’t changed so after these lengthy introductions, establishing levels, going through all/most/some etc the kids are then asked to do the same decontextualized practices that I was asked to do in my PE lessons 30 years ago. What I witness is a poorly applied/misinterpreted version of Assessment for Learning as developed by brilliant educators like Dylan Wiliam, Paul Black et al 15 years ago. The actual teaching has become procedural and bureaucratic. Void of soul:

So to bring a seasonal feel to my ramblings…you can wrap up an unwanted gift in the best wrapping paper and a fancy bow but inside a crap gift remains a crap gift.

My wish for 2013…every child to have meaningful, exciting, appropriate and authentic experiences in PE where the only level that’s relevant is ‘are you making progress towards the level you need to be at to engage happily in sport and physical activity when you leave school.’ You never know, Mr Gove may well be my Santa and deliver this gift by way of his new national curriculum!

Season’s greetings everyone.

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The Legacy Fallacy (19 December 2011)

‘Every sport will have a legacy’

Sebastian Coe, Singapore 2005

This blog is about the need to transform the way children and young people experience sport and physical activity (PA)

As we prepare to see out 2011 and enter the Olympic year, I thought I would explore where we are in relation to the Legacy agenda.

It pains me to say it but I’m hugely skeptical. It will be the highest profile (and most expensive) sporting event to take place in my home town. The legacy agenda was the only justification I could see for bringing the Olympic circus to town. Not because I bought into the idea that the best athletes in the world would inspire young people to take up and stay in sport/PA but because of the focus and opportunities it could bring.

Lord Coe explained in ’05 how he was inspired as an 8 year old watching the Games to become a multiple Olympic medal-winning athlete. Fair enough – for a limited few that might be the case but we know that access, funding, transport and support all need to be present in abundance for a young person to progress through to elite sport not to mention the physical and psychological characteristics required by the athlete him/herself. This cocktail of contributory factors would exclude so many youngsters that the £9 BILLION spend would equate to tens of millions of pounds per future Olympian. The inspiration fallacy plays out every summer when the local tennis courts see a flurry of activity for a week or two after Wimbledon. It doesn’t last long.

So how could the Olympics have impacted on participation rates? Shifting the national gaze over a range of sports has led to initiatives such as National School Sport Week and the School Games have been expanded to allow schools to emulate Olympic style competition. Sport England have a range of initiatives from Places People Play to Sport Makers. These initiatives are essentially MORE OF THE SAME and it’s this more of the same approach that feeds my skepticism.

Sports development specialist, Jim Cowan has been highlighting the lack of a coordinated, coherent Olympic strategy for quite a while now, yet that is precisely what is needed if London 2012 is going to impact on how children and young people engage with sport and PA. And that’s why the ‘more of the same’ approach is doomed – the thing that is being emulated has not worked. Even the most optimistic figures suggest that MORE young people are NOT involved in Sport and PA than are.

My concern is that we will waste the best opportunity to explore answers to difficult questions; to reconceptualise pathways into and through sport and PA, and to transform the experience; to re-consider the ‘old’ models and arrive at new, better ones that place the needs of the growing child at the centre. Our knowledge is so limited. We know how to perpetuate the model that serves those who are supported and socialized into sport but we know so little about how to reach those who don’t think they can or how to engage children who are overweight or have specific learning needs or even how to reach the majority of adolescent girls. Have we really made progress here and what does/can sport/PA look like for these youngsters?

Liz Jones’ recent article in the Mail was widely vilified. It made uncomfortable reading but perhaps she speaks for the many. Those of us involved with PE and Sport would do well to question whether the very experiences and cultures that turned us on to sport as youngsters are the very ones that drive hordes away.

I don’t claim to have the answers. I am, however, convinced that part of the solution is establishing movement competency in children. Good movers can grow into young people who have choice; young people who can decide how they wish to engage with sport and PA, which activities at which level and for what reason. For most kids it’s not about doing loads of one sport, or even doing lots of different sports…it’s about the enjoyment that comes from learning to move in lots of different contexts and environments.

In my next few blogs I will expand on the flaws in the way children generally experience sport and suggest some alternative ways to create a Legacy.

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Those who ‘can’t’…

‘It’s just not his thing’….’she’s not a natural athlete’…’he’s just not very good at…’

We hear these sentiments expressed so often. I don’t suppose they are only related to sport and physical activity. ‘I was never any good at Maths’ is also a common one. But I’m not sure there is another field of learning where it is so often assumed that ability is innate. Parents express it, teachers refer to it, coaches use it to justify lack of progress so it’s not surprising that kids assume it too. I’ve heard 3 year olds tell me they’re ‘not very good at…’

The outcome of this highly dubious assumption impacts on millions of young people around the world. They’re lost to physical activity before they even start. How do/can we intervene? I’d love to hear about your intervention strategies for kids ‘who can’t’. Literature, coaching manuals/blogs/websites, twitter conversations etc always seem to focus on how to support kids who are already engaged. The world of sport and PE can appear as a huge ‘mini me’ industry; the message is all too often, ‘I can so you must be able to’ or potentially more alienating, ‘I love this so you’ll love it too’. Enthusiasm is great but we must look at the kid’s starting point and these all tend to be very different. Consider prior experience, opportunities for ‘free’ physical play, hours of participation & practice, quality of early years teaching and learning, level of movement competence, values and attitudes etc etc. Each of these can be discussed in detail another time.

The point I’m trying to make is simple – let’s reflect on what we as parents/coaches/teachers do to break the link between ‘I can’t’ and ‘I’m not interested’. Let’s equip youngsters to know that they can and let’s challenge the highly-damaging myth of innateness. It’s a big ask that requires some big answers.

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Just do it

What better gift can we give to our children that the sheer joy of being physically active? In fact, perhaps that should read simply ‘sheer joy of being’. For children to exhibit unbridled enthusiasm for just about anything and everything is, in itself a sheer joy. I guess this really is the holy grail of parenthood, teaching and coaching. Where does it come from / how can we get there?

Unfortunately, we’re up against some formidable enemies of which Apathy must be the deadliest. I’ve been fortunate to work with some inspirational people, none more so than my friend Helen Cazalet. Helen is a retired teacher with a deep, burning passion for young people’s progress. She cares about pretty much everything. Because of this her energy is tangible.

Let’s energetically enthuse and hopefully our kids will engage with their world with interest, enjoyment and a heightened sense INTRINSIC motivation. Let them do it for the sheer love of it!

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Football academies

Professional football club academies start working with children (mainly boys) from the age of 8. Expectations are often raised as the boys progress and a great deal of time, energy and money is invested by the club and parents. Some figures suggest less than 1% of boys go on to play regularly for the first team of the academy club…1%!

That’s a tough one to explain. These kids have the best coaching (supposedly) yet there is clearly a missing element. At Active Kids we feel this is to do with too much emphasis being placed too early on sport specific skills and not enough on general athleticism and core physical competence (although I am sure it’s not quite that simplistic).

Whether you want your child to be a healthy, confident participator or a world beater, the starting point is the same. This quote is from Kofi’s mum. Kofi came to Active Kids (as mi sport was then called) for 4 years from the age of seven. We wish him and all our ‘graduates’ well and hope they go on to really enjoy all that sport has to offer.

AK has been great for Kofi – he’s enjoyed working with all your staff. They have been challenging and consistent. You may know that Kofi plays for Haringey Borough and Broadwater Farm football clubs – both doing very well this season. He is naturally athletic, but the regular attendance at AK over the years has also helped develop his skills.