If I could give every school a word of advice, it would be this: Separate the practice of exercise from the practice of sport.
I’m willing to stick my neck out and say that every single adult who lives a less-than-active lifestyle does so because of a negative association with sport-based exercise as a child. No, I don’t have measured data to prove this. But, I have asked many, many, many underactive people this question, and the answer is always something along the lines of: I hated sport as a child; I wasn’t any good at it; I wasn’t the sporty one; I enjoyed it but was never picked for the team so eventually gave up. Or even, my parents pushed me too hard and I stopped as soon as I left school.
And what’s the common thread here?
Exercise presented solely as sport leaves a bad taste in the mouth of everyone except the sporting elite.
Children are making the subconscious connection that exercise doesn’t make them feel good about themselves, and therefore should be avoided.
What is this obsession in the primary school sports department with instilling a culture of exercise equals sporting achievement? Don’t these teachers get it – you’re missing out on an incredible opportunity to shape the way your students FEEL about exercise, which they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. Or rather, you are already shaping the way they feel, but you’re leaving a lasting negative impression rather than a positive one.
What is needed is far more emphasis on the life-skill of exercise first, by giving children more options to enjoy exercise in a way that suits them, their body’s needs and abilities, their personality, and their timetable. Of course sport is one of these options. But the thing is, it’s not the only one.
As an example, schools could offer things like:
- Phys. Ed. lessons focused more on exercise life-skills, with an emphasis on noticing individual improvements in the actual movements as well as in daily life, as opposed to using this time to learn and practice sport skills;
- Walking, hiking, cycling, surfing… non-competitive extra-murals to encourage physical activity;
- Brain breaks – 5-minute exercise breaks during class time, teaching children that your body needs and craves movement, and even just 5 minutes is enough. A different child could lead this each day to help them internalize the benefits of various movements;
- A walking circuit – a pre-determined route around the school that teachers and children can do once a day or so.
I have loads more ideas on this, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on some more too.
Whatever your school chooses to offer, I’d like to encourage teachers to take the time to think about what’s really important. How great you’ll feel when you can say you coached the champion U10 hockey team to success this year?
Or how great you’ll feel when a child you can’t even remember stops you in the street in 15 years time to say that you’re the reason they still make sure they do some kind of exercise every day?
Well, that actually happens to me every once in a while. So I think we all know where I stand on this!
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