Making running fun from an early age
When children enjoy exercise they don’t carry our sporting insecurities into adulthood
Students from St Brigid’s National School, Castleknock, Dublin, with Elaine Wyllie, founder of The Daily Mile
Those of us who run regularly know that running not only benefits our waistline but also helps to lift our mood, improve concentration and build our confidence. It’s just a pity that so many of us had to wait until adulthood or middle age to work this out. As empowering as it is to start running as an adult, it does make you realise that for years you have missed out on the best and cheapest stress-buster and mood-enhancer on the market.
I certainly wasn’t aware of the power of running when I was a teenager. In fact, running was something I actively tried to avoid. I didn’t consider myself sporty and never enjoyed running. PE was often about competition rather than participation in those days, and the focus was on the front runners rather than those struggling at the back.
I’m not the only one to pigeonhole myself into this “non-sporty” camp from childhood. I see it all the time when teaching adults in beginners’ running classes. Students often tell me that they cannot run. I spend as much time instilling belief and changing the mindset of these new runners as I do teaching them how to run comfortably. It is incredible how our perceptions of ourselves on the sporting scale can stay with us long after our PE experiences.
When kids enjoy fitness and exercise they don’t carry any of our sporting insecurities into adulthood nor set as many boundaries on their capabilities.
For both adults and children, the goal of running has broadened in recent years from completion to now an individual pursuit, a challenge to push ourselves to new limits, to set goals, and spend less time comparing with others and more time focussing on our own progress.
Although today’s children may have more technical distractions than we had in the form of phones, tablets and computer games, they do also have the benefit of some wonderful supports available to help them build confidence and fun in running from an early age.
A Scottish initiative originally, The Daily Mile involves 15 minutes of running, with walks where necessary, as part of the primary school day. The focus is on fun in a non-competitive atmosphere, where everyone is encouraged to join in and enjoy.
Apart from the general health and fitness improvements, the students return to their desks with better mood, behaviour, concentration and energy after their blast of fresh air.
Following its pilot launch in Ireland last month, enthusiasm is building for the rollout of the The Daily Mile across the country in September. Athletics Ireland is responsible for the promotion and development of The Daily Mile in Ireland, and it will work in collaboration with local authorities and sports partnerships across the country. Interested schools and teachers are encouraged to sign up and get involved.
It’s not just teachers that are playing their part in showing children that running can be fun. Parents have their part to play in offering the opportunity to develop a lifetime love of running. Growing up I don’t remember many of my friend’s parents going running, but now we have a generation of children who have parents involved in everything from triathlons to 5ks, Crossfit to yoga.
Whether we are aware of it or not, having active parents has a profound impact on the child. They see exercise as a normal activity for all members of the family, not just the most talented at sport.
Even if running is not your activity of choice, you can introduce your 4- to 14-year-old children to Junior Parkrun, a spinoff of the hugely successful Parkrun. On Sunday mornings across the country juniors follow the 2k course where the focus is not on winning but participation. Parents can run alongside their children, volunteer at the event, or keep a watchful eye from the sidelines.
The aim of Junior Parkrun is to help children develop a love for running in a welcoming, fun and safe environment. Each event is free, and much sought after wristbands are rewarded to runners when they hit distance milestones over time.
Some of the older children also have their eye on running personal best times but for many of the smaller children it’s the buzz of crossing the finish line and having a post-run catchup with friends that is the attraction – and we can all relate to that.
Many a runner in Junior Parkrun is there because they have seen their parents participate and enjoy the original 5k Parkrun which takes place every Saturday morning. If we are to encourage our children to join initiatives such as Junior Parkrun and The Daily Mile we have got to take the lead and show them how running is fun for us, sometimes a challenge but always worthwhile.
Both adults and children build confidence, resilience and a stronger mindset from this simplest of activities. Indeed, it takes practice and dedication to improve, but we can all start somewhere. It’s up to us to help the next generation avoid our sporting insecurities and reap the physical and mental health benefits of running.
Mary Jennings is founder and running coach with ForgetTheGym.ie.
Sign up for one of The Irish Times' Get Running programmes (it is free!).
First, pick the eight-week programme that suits you.
- Beginner Course: A course to take you from inactivity to running for 30 minutes.
- Stay On Track: For those who can squeeze in a run a few times a week.
- 10km Course: Designed for those who want to move up to the 10km mark.
Best of luck!