Why increasing sports is essential for children

Not every child likes sports, but it’s my belief that the more sport and physical activities the better. Research supports getting children outside and doing more physical activity, and there has to be something suitable for everyone. They just need to find the right sport that suits each child. School sports can go a long way towards that.

Recently I’ve been chatting to mums with kids in different schools and they were astounded at how much sport our school does. Especially with Covid restrictions in place. Bubbles aren’t mixing, but they’re still managing to run altered after school clubs, sports during the school day and activities are generally back on outside of school within restrictions.

At school, N is currently doing 3–4 sessions of PE a week. One of those might be outdoor learning instead, but mostly it’s sports of some kind. He also does a multisports after school club. Each class has different timetables for different PE lessons, but they’ll usually run in the afternoons, classes following each other with the external coaches who come for after school clubs and teach PE earlier in the day.

In the 2 middle classes, one session would usually be swimming, but at the moment the school isn’t going due to Covid and number of children needing to be in and through the pool’s changing rooms.

Things are different — no tennis nets being used (not sure why as kids shouldn’t be touching the nets anyway), kids aren’t taking in their own equipment to use, equipment is being cleaned in between sessions. PE kits are taken in and home again each day because the children keep everything with them rather than using the cloakrooms, cross class after school clubs are done in class bubbles keeping them separate when doing drills. For multisports they’re playing games that can be done in smaller groups rather than all years doing dodgeball or the other random ball games they’ve played in the past.

The only thing that has gone is the daily HIIT sessions before they go into school because on arrival in the mornings, they go straight into class rather than playing outside til the bell. N is pleased about that — he was always moaning about it.

Some parents have said their children wouldn’t like that much sport. I’m surprised at how many primary school children don’t like sport or PE. I can understand secondary school when children get more self conscious. There’s also more of a division between sporty and non sporty children. Primary school PE should be about trying out new sports, making it normal to do sports regularly, and find the skills you do like.

I think as a small school we’re very lucky. We have lots of external coaches who do after school clubs and are brought in for afternoon PE. Parents have also taught sessions in the past like dance, yoga and aussie rules football. The multisports club means children get to play unusual sports like Danish longball, dodgeball, and various others (that I’m convinced N has made up). Good for children who aren’t that good at traditional team sports as everyone is new to them, and they’re not the sort of sports that you find as out of school clubs either.

The school do football, cricket (and french cricket), hockey, tennis, rounders, cross country and athletics so they’ll have experienced those before going to secondary school. As well as the more minor sports.

N has never really wanted to try other organised sports other than tennis. He does after school multisports which is important because it brings other skills to his tennis movement and general fitness. He loved trying aussie rules football when a dad taught it for a couple of months. This year he’s loving hockey they’re playing a couple of times a week, and has taken to it quite well. He’s not a football fan, but doesn’t mind playing in school. He really enjoyed playing in the Year 3 and 4 schools tournament last year which they won.

He’s never wanted to try the town hockey club, or any other sports (swimming was for safety and helping his strength and fitness), even though quite a few of his school friends do. I think generally he’s happy playing sports and trying them all in school, but isn’t a particular fan of organised lessons otherwise (apart from tennis). Even tennis he had a couple of upsets where he refused to take part early on until the coach got him to help out with the equipment.

All the children take part at their school. They have a sports council who lead some of the sports at playtimes (outside Covid restriction times).

At sports day, everyone is supported and cheered down the track. Even those who really struggle. Yes they have winners (and their school do very well against other local primary schools in most tournaments they enter), but people aren’t teased if they’re not good at sport. Everyone is encouraged to take part and try.

row of tennis players and rackets

Thinking back to my school days my sporting enjoyment varied.

From nursery school and my first school where I had no idea about sports — I was the child following the rules and still near the start of the egg and spoon race while the others had all finished while holding their egg on.

Then moving area at nearly 8 years old, I was thrust into a really active set of friends. We played sports out on the green in our village estate, all the neighbours children taking part. Cycling and roller skating was the norm outside of school (not forgetting our invention of roller cycling hockey! Lethal!).

In primary school we did netball, hockey, tennis and athletics. I went from being rubbish to really enjoying sport and doing quite well on sports day, as well as being part of team sports. My love of sports increased at secondary school, trying trampolining, table tennis, indoor hockey, basketball, lacrosse and badminton on top of the traditional ones. Running (and swimming) was the only one I wasn’t a fan of.

Once at secondary the whole changing room situation is probably the biggest off-putting thing for students. It was definitely the worst part of taking part in sports. At that age it’s getting more obviously the difference in skills and the different treatment and respect you get if you’re a sports participant out of PE lessons vs those who do what they have to in lessons only.

Nowadays, I think sports have probably changed a lot, with dance becoming more available (street dance rather than the country dancing we had to do). But there’s still lots of children not taking part and really hating it.

As I was involved with sports I didn’t really have many friends who didn’t take part in at least one sport in school. But moving for 6th form it was interesting to see the different opinions and see attitudes change towards sport as we progressed through the 2 years.

I was at a private school for 6th form, with girls only in 6th form. No getting out of sport there. It was 3 times a week, and more if you were in a team and had practice. But we also had fun sports events we organised to enjoy the summer days.

Not everyone started at the school enjoying sport. Many had hated sport at previous schools. But with less than 40 girls in the school and 2–3 teams to put out for some sports, it meant most girls were in a team for something. The girls had mostly got past the awkward teen age, changing for sports was in bedrooms or study rooms in the boarding house, along with shower cubicles or bathroom. So no embarrassment required in communal changing rooms. Minor sports were played, and girls who’d never had the chance to play for a team were now getting the opportunity.

Yes, a few preferred not to, but my previously sports hating friends embraced all the sport and would even join us for fun hitting sessions in the evenings. There was more attention for coaching because the lessons were smaller than at secondary school games lessons. It was much more part of school life.

Obviously it’s not good to force children to do sports if they really hate it. But if N didn’t enjoy it, I would still encourage him to at least try something like multisports.

I’d always try them earlier than later too. Unless there are sports that don’t start until older ages, it can be embarrassing if you’re a beginner in a sports club hardly able to hit a ball, while everyone else has been playing for 3–5 years. That kind of situation would have put me off as a child unless I really showed a natural ability for the sport and picked it up quickly.

If I wanted to encourage my child to take part in sports, these are some things I’d try.

Try lots of different sports. Either clubs like fundamentals (ball skills and basic movement), gym where they’ve got different equipment, or multisports where they alternate sports played. These are great for younger children as there are often less rules to follow.

Use holiday clubs. I started squash because my mum put us on a week’s summer course for it when I was 12. They are mostly one sport, but can sometimes offer different sports (and crafts, arts and other options alongside).

Take up sports with your children. We’ve always played random sports in the garden and on days out. A bit of badminton, tennis, golf, archery, cricket, frisbee. Playing anything helps coordination, and that will translate once they’re playing sports at school.

Try minor sports and think outside the box. If they’re not keen on team sports and aren’t competitive, try dance, martial arts, frisbee, yoga, climbing, canoeing, or outdoor gyms.

Find out what sports their friends like. Doing activities with friends is always more fun than starting on your own. But once they’re progressing, make sure they’re not just there for the social if they’re good at distracting others. It’s frustrating for other children who want to improve if lessons are being held up to stop children chatting or mucking around.

Set challenges. Either formal ones like aiming for a Blue Peter sports badge, or Race at Your Pace where you can agree a distance each month to walk, swim, run or cycle (for adults and children), and get a medal for completion.

Ask at school about what they do to get children involved. Giving children responsibility for equipment or choosing the sports played can help.

Don’t force them into sports you’re into. Most children do end up enjoying sports their parents like. Fathers sharing their love of football with their toddlers. Kids in tennis or squash often have parents who either love the sport or are coaches. Give them the option to play, but don’t force them to continue if they’re not enjoying it. Look for something else similar or totally different.

Look for different places to play. The garden is fine, sports don’t have to be organised. Many clubs play in local parks, or just get some friends together to play. Getting a load of kids (and parents) together to play cricket or rounders on the village green or local park is easy to do. Make it a social occasion. Or why not look out for other options like shopping centres — ours had table tennis tables set up in a closed down shop where people could go and play for free. It was always popular.

Try taster sessions. Many sports clubs (especially those just starting up junior divisions), hold introduction sessions to try out the sport. Our local canoeing club and sailing club does this, as did our tennis club over the summer holidays where non members can come along and learn the sport. Over the last few years there have been national sports associations setting up free or really cheap introduction course for children — x number of weeks, plus on completion the child gets free equipment or clothing (tennis and cricket have both done these across the UK for children totally new to the sport).

Stick at it. No child is going to be amazing on their first session, and they might not enjoy it after 2. But book them on a course so they’re tied in for at least half a term of lessons to give them a chance.Sometimes children need to take part in things they don’t want to at first, otherwise how are they ever going to try new things and find out what they’re good at.

Watch sport live and find good role models. We’ve been to watch MK Dons play football which N loved and still talks about even though he’s not a football fan. Watching tennis at the Royal Albert Hall was an amazing experience, and N wants to get good at tennis so he can do trick shots like Mansour Bahrami. He also watches trick stuff on Youtube. He’s inspired.

Teach the links between sports and physical activity and health. It’s an alternative way of treating sports as part of a routine (going to the gym), rather than for pure enjoyment.

If you want more information about encouraging sports

For me, having a child who enjoys sports is so important. And there’s plenty of ways to try and get them involved. As long as they’re doing enough of the core subjects at school, I’m all for them doing as much sport as possible before they get to secondary school and there’s less opportunities and more barriers put up from the children.

Are your children sports lovers, or would they rather avoid doing it? How much do they do in school?

Mum of one, farmer’s wife and project manager. Blogging, photographing and dancing my way through life