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Teaching children to be active

Is it as hard as it seems?

Football is still by far the favourite sport among Britain's schoolchildren, according to new government statistics that pinpoint tennis, cycling and golf as some of the less conventional pursuits growing in popularity.  But while the number of children regularly competing in school sports matches has risen over the past year, ministers are thought to be somewhat unsatisfied with the progress.

The Guardian reported recently that the proportion of primary school pupils making frequent contributions on the sports field still amounted to less than half of the young population – increasing to 39 per cent, from 28 per cent in 2009.

While some groups may dismiss arguments that sport has an important role to play in the development of young people, it is hard to deny that amid an ever-expanding obesity problem, exercise should form a part of all children's day.

The issue of ailing fitness among youngsters is not limited to the British Isles either, as highlighted by findings from a ten-year study published in the medical journal Archives of Disease in Childhood last year.

It was revealed that global cardiorespiratory fitness, physical health relating to the hearts and lungs of children across the world, was declining at a rate of 4.3 per cent with each decade.

Somewhat alarmingly, the Essex University scientists behind the investigation found that in England the problem was worsening at an even quicker rate – seven per cent in boys and nine percent among girls.

Gavin Sandercock, one of the report's authors, argued that there were two main reasons for the apparently weakening fitness in children – a lack of physical exercise and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle.

"The government was recently singing the praises of our digital economy and how many computers we have in our homes. It just means we don't have to walk any more," he asserted.

Mr Sandercock added: "You can have everything streamed wirelessly into your bedroom and you don't have to open the window to find out what the weather is like – you can ask Google. It is stealing time from active pursuit."

These are clearly issues that schools and teaching staff need to overcome in order to ensure that today's young people do not develop into a generation of unfit and unhappy heart attacks waiting to happen.

Despite improvement in the numbers of children taking part in sport over recent months and years, ministers have described the figure as remaining "disappointingly low".

One of the key ways in which schools are able to entice pupils into regular exercise is through competitive sport.

The latest Department for Education statistics suggest around one in five children (21 per cent) regularly participate in inter-school competitions – a small increase on the 2009 figure of 19 per cent.

Children's Minister Tim Loughton commented: "It's great to see that more pupils are taking part in school sports, and that both girls and boys regularly play a variety of sports.

"However, young people's involvement in competitive sport remains disappointingly low. We aim to spark a competitive school sport revolution by giving thousands of young people the chance to compete at the Olympic and Paralympic style school sport competitions in 2012," he added.

The school Olympics planned by the government will include sports such as football, athletics, rugby, swimming, tennis and cycling, with UK teaching establishments competing at a local level from 2011.

Winning competitors will then qualify to take part in up to 60 county finals, with Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt claiming that the scheme would "get rid of this myth that competitive sport is bad for children".

There have long been arguments from some people that placing too great an emphasis on sport, as opposed to academia and more formal learning, lowers children's ability to concentrate in the classroom.

Others would say that such forms of outdoor activity are beneficial to overall learning, however, with football-field rivalry able to bring healthy competition into class, particularly when paired with 'gold star' reward schemes and such like.

In addition, there is a mountain of evidence to support the value of team activity in young people's development, with the potential benefits extending to all areas of children's work, play and ability to socialise.

Perhaps, rather than focusing all of their energy on the playing field, teachers could do more to encourage exercise and sporting activity in the classroom.

Thinking back to their own experiences of school life, many would be likely to testify that the most memorable lessons were those taught most dynamically, with enthusiasm and elements of fun taking centre stage.

With computer and video games often proving a more popular choice than a game of football or tennis for children, it is perhaps a teacher's responsibility to subtly introduce physical activity, to covertly teach youngsters that exercise can be worth the effort of standing up and taking part.

Whether this be through a morning warm-up session or short stretching class before regular teaching begins, or use of more active teaching methods in subject areas such as numeracy and mental arithmetic.

A simple ball-throwing game to help children learn their multiplication tables may just be the key to encouraging a playtime rugby match; planting the seed for a next-generation Jonny Wilkinson or Carol Vorderman.