Diversifying sport in school

It is widely reported that many children are struggling with detachment issues from school and lack of confidence since the pandemic, the question is, can engaging in physical activity and sport help with this issue? Guest blogger and Head of Games at Windlesham House School in West Sussex Emma Spybey investigates.

As adults, we know that participating in regular, physical activity can support our overall wellbeing, boosting our physical fitness and also our mental resilience.  In the case of children, this applies even more so. Traditional sports, played at a level appropriate to ability, can generate that sense of belonging and self-worth that comes with team participation.  Individual sports can also help to develop confidence, motivation, and self-reliance. Academic work can be tough and, for some, confidence sapping. Sport, whether team or individual, and at whatever level it is played, can be a powerful antidote.  

 

Expanding sporting horizons

When it comes to sports in school, there has been great deal of gender stereotyping in the past (i.e., girls play netball and boys play rugby). Thankfully, recent years have seen a massive and continuing improvement in this area. Increased media coverage of women’s sport has inspired many girls to expand their sporting horizons beyond the traditional ‘girls’ games’. Gender stereotyping is in retreat. Although netball and, for some, rounders, may remain preferred options, the girls at my school are signing up in ever-increasing numbers for football, cricket, and rugby and this is encouraging to see.

After all, why should school team selection in these sports be the sole preserve of boys?  And why should every player in a game of netball be female?  It’s a great game for both sexes and it would be wonderful to see more boys challenging girls on the netball courts.  Likewise, why should a rugby or cricket coach be male? Or a netball coach be female? The same applies here, we need to continue breaking down these unhelpful stereotypes.

Some children are naturally sportier than others too, but greater diversity in sports can help those children who usually shy away from participation. Sport is in a very real sense, a core subject. Every pupil takes part in daily physical activity.  Diversity of choice is one key:  ball sports may be the preferred choice for many, but for others, the joys of kicking, throwing, catching, or thwacking a ball with bat or racket, are less of a draw.  The swimming pool may hold greater appeal, or the climbing wall, or the dance studio.   

 

Enthusiasm for sport starts at home

Ability appropriateness is another key:  whether it’s a team sport or an individual one, children respond with enthusiasm when appropriately and achievably challenged.  This is all about balance and understanding that every child is different. If something feels too easy, no fun or too difficult, why bother trying?

Generating a love of physical activity starts at home.  Schools understand that children follow by example, so children with active parents are more likely to follow suit.  If, as a parent, you want to unglue your children from their gaming screens for something healthier and more energetic, there are two golden rules:  first, it needs to be fun; and second, it needs to be (achievably!) challenging.  Even for adults, physical activity for its own sake can be more of a chore than a joy. Think of all of those exercise bikes gathering dust in garages across the country, or those dormant gym memberships.  How much more important then, is it for our children, that sport and exercise goes hand-in-hand with having fun and being challenged?

Sport is something of a tradition in schools, but many are looking to move outside of the more traditional boundaries and to introduce new, more unusual sports. There is no reason to relegate the ‘traditional’ games of football, rugby, netball, cricket etc. from their position at the heart of the sporting menu. But equally, there is every reason to expand and diversify the programme.  Whether that is trampolining, judo, skateboarding, water polo, mountain-biking, climbing or table tennis, there is lots to be gained from so-called ‘minority’ sports. They’re fun, they’re challenging, they help develop fitness levels. Interestingly, these kinds of activities were all included in the Tokyo Olympics. Few schools could offer them all, but all schools should try to offer at least a few.

 

Managing risk and making sport more inclusive

So, how can schools make sports more inclusive for all children? This brings us back to diversity and ability appropriateness again. Let’s be clear, inclusivity doesn’t mean giving every child, regardless of ability, ‘a go’ in the first XI football team or the top netball team.  It does mean giving every child a wide variety of choice, and it does mean giving every child the opportunity to take part competitively, and at a level appropriate to their ability.

More schools today are also considering riskier sports like, climbing, skateboarding and skiing as a method of boosting resilience and confidence. We live in a risk-averse society.  But just as we know the benefits to us all around physical activity and sport, we must also recognise the benefit to our children’s development of learning about risk. At my school, our pupils aren’t cocooned and that is important for their future lives. Being sensibly risk-assessed and properly supervised (with parental permission), these riskier activities should definitely have their place at school.  Life is an adventure after all, and childhood is the perfect time to embrace this.

Windlesham House is a leading independent day and boarding prep school for boys and girls aged 4-13 years.  Set in 65 acres of beautiful grounds in the West Sussex countryside the school was established in 1837 as the first ever UK prep school. It was also the first to admit girls in 1967 and is still one of the few prep schools in the UK today not to have a school uniform.  While the school exceeds pastorally and academically, Windlesham is passionate about creating a happy, safe and rich learning environment where children have the space and freedom to be children. The school also encourages its children to make a difference in their world and nurtures them to flourish as confident, curious, kind and clever people. 

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