Goodbye hockey, hello raving yoga: how schools are exploring new ways of keeping children active

Lucy Higginson
Schools are exploring new ways to keep children active - Getty Images Contributor

For a nation that this summer won the cricket world cup, bronze in the netball world cup and six medals at the world rowing championships, we still have some of the most inactive and overweight children in the world.

Perhaps the development of so many Lottery-backed junior sports coaching programmes and pathways cuts both ways, causing unwitting polarisation. Children with natural ability are quickly swept up into into them, intimidating the less enthusiastic who often end up taking their games on-screen. 

So dire is the situation, the Government will soon launch a Sport and Activity Action plan to address the fact that just 8 per cent of girls and 16 per cent of boys do the one-hour minimum of daily activity recommended by the Chief Medical Officer. 

This promises to concentrate particularly on disadvantaged areas and, given the shocking gender gap in activity, girls — also the focus of the Telegraph Sport’s own Girls, Inspired programme. The Action Plan will include a range of regional pilots for “innovative approaches”; investment for 400 new after-school clubs; more school facilities open at the weekends and in holidays, and digital resources including “Netflix-style library of workout videos” aimed at girls that can be used in lessons.

At puberty, the bad habits of childhood are cemented further. “The challenges we face are no different to the state sector,” says Alexis Williamson-Jones of the Girls Day School Trust (GDST), and a PE teacher for more than 20 years. “What with computer games, Netflix and social media, I’ve definitely seen fitness levels decline. Children can struggle to run a single lap of a very small field.”

So, short of dangling their phone from the driver’s side window and trundling round the block, what innovations are schools employing to help get children on to their feet, get fit, and have fun?

Offsite experiences

“We see a trend of girls losing interest at the end of year nine,” says Alex Wilson, joint head of physical education for  the GDST’s Newcastle High School for Girls. “You’re not going to make a 14-year-old girl start to like hockey if she hasn’t already by then.”

To combat this, the school gives briefs in core fitness and wellbeing — with the school nurse, — “to explain the benefits of fitness and staying active — including for our mental health”, says Ms Wilson. Besides introducing girls to things like the Couch to 5k app, Years 10 and 11 are then invited to spend a term trying four previously upsampled sports offsite, such as self-defence, yoga or fencing.

“I’m looking for quirky ideas,” says Ms Wilson, who’s even had parkour teachers - that’s military-style obstacle course training - into school. “And sometimes we’ve found there is funding available when we weren’t expecting it — for women’s golf, for example.

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“A lot of our girls wouldn’t know these activities are out there — some have never heard of spinning,” she continues. 

A big advantage of promoting non-competitive sports like yoga is that the naturally sporty children don’t necessarily dominate lessons. Absolutely central is the need for the exercise to be fun: “I’ve seen some dreadful golf, but a lot of laughter.”

Thereafter girls follow one of two pathways. The more competitive can opt to improve their skills in team sports, and the others may choose things like gym sessions or trampolining, or play games like handball, volleyball and tag rugby in a more relaxed way, the games sometimes modified to put the emphasis firmly on having fun.

Woodland workouts 

Lord Wandsworth College, a co-ed day and boarding senior school in Hampshire, has a head start when it comes to keeping its pupils active in the form of its vast 1,200-acre campus. “Most of our pupils do 10,000 steps a day just getting around, and wear out shoes like they’re going out of fashion,”explains headmaster Adam Williams.

An early adopter of girls’ cricket four years ago, Lord Wandsworth is proud that there are now 22 girls playing for their district or county. “I looked at where women’s sport is going,” explains Mr Williams. “And with rounders participation falling and cricket increasing, it was a no brainer. We built a girls’ cricket ground and gave them their own kit and it’s been a huge success.”

Less competitively, the school runs Santa Dashes and Colour Runs and is exploring ever more ways to utilise its grounds to encourage less naturally sporty children to be active, and to enjoy time outdoors, walking houseparents’ dogs, taking woodland walks and camping.

Educate and influence

“We try to think more intelligently about every child, and not just use them as fixture winners,” says Dr Nicholas Grigsby, Deputy Head of co-curricular at Stonyhurst. “We take the importance of exercise back into the classroom — how it affects us not just biologically, but our mind, body and soul. Our pupils are really well informed about brain chemistry, how they tick, what the optimum amount of sleep they need is and so on. Then we ensure they are not corralled into limited or gender specific sports options — we have things like aqua fitness alongside traditional team sports — and back this up with top quality coaching and mentoring.”

As a mixed school, Stonyhurst finds today’s pupils have much more gender neutral ideas about who should do which games, and boys and girls are often found playing cricket and netball alongside one another. 

The other thing that has been transformative at Stonyhurst, says Dr Grigsby, has been inviting able young sports people with respected profiles  — “influencer types” — to speak to the pupils not just about their sporting ambitions and achievements but about the challenges faced along the way. This has included depression, positive role models and how you see yourself, and every speaker has been happy to come in for free. “They are just desperate to share their story with young people,” explains Grigsby. “This has been absolutely massive, and we found it’s led to much higher engagement.” 

Embrace technology

Howell’s School in Cardiff, another GDST school, takes a multi-pronged approach to fitness, one feature of which tries is establishing exercise patterns early — even three-year-olds have three hours a week of sport, plus swimming, taught by specialist teachers.

“At puberty their commitments change slightly,” explains Ceri Crawford, Director of Sport. “I noticed a bigger drop off from year nine than I’d been used to, and some girls will tell me in a PE lesson that they’d rather be in the library.”

Crawford has capitalised on special interests among her staff — “we’ve some who are passionate about dance or pilates, for example” — and besides offering yoga, pilates and meditation classes, has discovered groovy ways to get teenagers to forget about their body consciousness, particularly useful in the sixth form, which also admits boys. 

“One thing that’s gone down a storm are glow stick games,” explains Crawford. “We black out the sports hall, put some music on, get a glow-in-the-dark ball and play football, handball or netball. You really would think there was some sort of festival going on, there’s such a din.”

“Raving yoga” — an import from New York — has been another hit, involving bouncing yoga moves to the beat of rhythmic dance music. 

Noticing that many girls dislike skorts or gym skirts, Crawford has changed the kit so they can wear much-favoured leggings — “if you can get the kit right that makes a big difference to their participation” — and found ways to make involve their phones. “I actually encourage them to bring them into the fitness suite here and see any workout they particularly enjoy,” explains Crawford. “They’ll find videos teaching them good technique on Instagram and YouTube and it’s useful for me to stay in touch with what they like.” She’s now hoping that iPads will be installed when the suite is refitted.   

 Crawford credits fitness influencers’ “before and after training” testimony with having a positive effect on fitness, even if the images portrayed there can be somewhat unrealistic: “Five years ago if I mentioned to a child ‘Do you go to a leisure centre?’ they’d look at me as if I had grown horns. Now I’ll get a very different answer.”

Running wild in the woods

Roughly one third of the children who attend Woodcote House, a boys’ prep school in Surrey, come by bus from London every day. The longer school day on offer there, as in many prep schools (from 8.20am until 5.40pm) means they can be given the best part of two hours sports tuition a day, with a timetabled 25 minute “kick about” period before lunch every day.

“We have a no gadgets ethos here,” explains registrar Wendy Edgerley. Instead boys have climbing ropes and a rope assault course, trees to climb, and the “elephants graveyard— where branches bang down like trunks and tusks” in which to make dens, fight duels and stave off pirates. 

“There’s no keeping them inside unless it’s pouring,” says Head of Common Room Oliver Paterson. “Unquestionably, the time spent on the ropes and what the boys call “Monkey Village” helps us get them a lot fitter, which can take time after a long summer.”