Getting the hang of staying active at school
To help earn their Active School Flag, the sporty teachers at Coill Dubh National School, in Co Kildare, came up with a plan to ensure pupils keep playing at break time
Olaf Liukowska with fellow pupils playing outdoors. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Maire Louise Reilly of the Irish Womens Team plays ball with the school’s pupils. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Darragh Crowley runs through the willow tunnel made by the children during the school’s active schools programme. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Irish children are finding it difficult to stay slim. A delegation from the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute recently told the Oireachtas that Irish children are now the fifth heaviest in Europe. They are relentlessly targeted by junk-food ads, eat too many processed foods and are lured by technology that leaves them increasingly sedentary. While the Government has failed to siphon off funds to treat overweight children, schools are becoming more proactive in dealing with a problem they are seeing every day.
Coill Dubh primary school, near Naas in Co Kildare, was concerned about national obesity trends and decided to get its pupils to exercise more, well before a lack of activity could become a problem.
Looking out of a staffroom window that overlooks the playground, the teachers had noticed that some of the children had stopped playing. They were sitting around talking or wandering the yard. Games like hopscotch and skipping were dying out, and the initiative to start a game of football was dwindling.
“For whatever reason after third class they stopped playing games, especially the girls,” says Joe Leacy, the principal of the seven-teacher, 130-pupil school, which was built on the edge of the Bog of Allen in 1956 for the children of Bord na Móna workers.
“They are definitely less active than previous generations, maybe because they are growing up in a digital age. We did a survey in maths class about screen time, and some of the children are spending four to six hours in front of a screen in the evenings.”
Coill Dubh’s staff are exceptionally sporty. Among the teachers, Jen Leacy has earned 13 caps for Ireland women’s rugby, Declan Coulter has played for Ireland in the Hurling International since 2007, Ciara Mooney plays camogie with Kildare senior champions and Helen Coyne has represented Ireland in the World Tug of War Championship.
With such a strong interest in sport themselves, the teachers were concerned by what they saw in the school yard and decided to improve their physical-education provision. In the past six months they also began applying for an Active School Flag from the Department of Education. To earn the flag, the school must evaluate itself in 15 areas and commit to making at least one improvement in each.
They identified extracurricular activities as something they could work on, and set up a cross-country running league and hurling and camogie classes twice a week after school.
Another area of focus was the yard itself. To encourage the children to play, they bought two big buckets that they filled with toys to leave out at break time. “We bought things like balls, hula hoops, skipping ropes and spacehoppers, and we noticed the difference straight away,” says Evanna Linehan, who is co-ordinating the push to get the Active School Flag.