How an Irish project to get kids more active is proving a hit abroad

Active School Week celebrates moving for fun, and now schools abroad want a piece of the action

St Clare's Primary School in Harold's Cross, Dublin have come up with a novel way to get kids to school on time while raising awareness of environmental and fitness issues. It's called the 'scooter train'. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

Tracksuits will be the dress code for both pupils and teachers in many primary schools around the country next week, and homework won’t be done sitting down.

With rules like that for national Active School Week (ASW), which runs from May 7th-10th, it’s no wonder it’s most students’ favourite week of the year. And such is the success of the Active School Flag programme, of which the ASW is a part, schools abroad now want a piece of the action.

First in the queue to pilot this new Irish export are Italy and Lithuania, with the help of EU funding. When St Clare’s primary school in Harold’s Cross, Dublin, is going through its paces next week, Istituto Comprensivo Rita Levi-Montalcini in Turin will be partnering with it through Skype.

It helps that St Clare’s has an Italian-speaking member of staff to provide a running commentary on events such as their Spring Olympics when, for one whole day, every classroom is converted into a setting for physical movement. Mixed-age teams of children, from junior infants to sixth class pupils, rotate around these and outdoor stations, trying activities as diverse as uni hockey and balloon volley ball, limbo and penalty shoot-out.

St Clare’s got its first Active School Flag in 2014, and the whole programme “has made a huge difference to the level of activity in the school, especially among children who weren’t into sport”, says its co-ordinator Anna Ní Dhomhnaill.

“That was the focus of the Spring Olympics, to try to target children who don’t play team sports and wouldn’t naturally be sporty. We were picking events that they could do, and didn’t require them to be a typically sporty child – things like crab walk and shuttle runs.

“There is no competitive element and no team wins overall. The emphasis is on moving for fun.”

Having the span of ages, she adds “gives the older ones a chance to lead and the younger ones a chance to mix with the older ones, and they get to know one another better”.

Health promotion

The Active School Flag, developed for both primary and secondary schools as an initiative of the Department of Education with the support of Healthy Ireland, has attracted international attention through the European-wide organisation CHRODIS – addressing chronic diseases and healthy ageing across the life cycle. The HSE presented it as an example of good practice in health promotion and now other countries want to follow suit.

Starting with the very user-friendly format for primary schools, the scheme is expected to transfer successfully, says Active School Flag national co-ordinator Karen Cotter.

Nearly 800 primary and secondary schools around Ireland are currently flying an “active flag”, which has to be renewed every three years. It is awarded to those who can show how they are striving for a physically active community, and requires links being made with organisations beyond the school walls.

“Schools can only do so much,” says Cotter. “We want schools to help children and their families find something in their local community that can be a lifelong activity for them.”

Another of the requirements is that an Active School Week is incorporated into the annual school calendar – not necessarily in the designated national week but at a time that suits. And some schools run ASW as a stand-alone event without engaging in the more complex flag application process.

“The kids absolutely love Active Week – that’s the feedback we get,” says Cotter. “We are very much promoting the idea of whole school fun.”

The aim is to show children there are lots of ways to be active, and to encourage them to find ones that they will like at different stages of their lives. Often if schools do the Active Week, she adds, it motivates them to look towards the flag.

Social media has been a great way for schools to share ideas about what to do for ASW, with co-ordinators asked this year to use the hashtag #ASW19 to show others what they’re up to. Here are some examples of innovative and popular activities that may be coming to a primary school near you.

NINE ALTERNATIVE ACTIVITIES TO GET KIDS MOVING

Active homework

Teachers giving pupils exercise for homework is a compulsory part of Active School Week. But Ballygiblin National School in Gurteenaboul, Mitchelstown, Co Cork, gave it a new twist in early April with a “three-course active menu”.The children were asked to pick a “starter, main course and dessert” each evening from a menu of activities. They spent way more time on physical activity than they would have on written homework, says Maire Hanrahan, the school’s ASW co-ordinator. “The psychology of it is gas, and it’s nice to see.”

Solo hurling limbo

This was an idea dreamt up by the pupils at Ballygiblin NS, which is situated in a “hurling parish” and close to county borders. As a result, there is a real county-mix in the school, with children coming not only from Cork, but also Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford. For this whole-school event in the playground, they dressed in their county colours and balanced or hopped a sliothar on their hurley as they approached to limbo under another hurley held by two children, while the theme tune of RTÉ’s The Sunday Game played over the loudspeakers.

Blind soccer

The pupils of Letterkenny Educate Together National School have experienced what it’s like to play soccer without sigh, with the help of local man John Doherty of Blind Football Ireland. They all wore blindfolds and played with a ball fitted with a bell.

Quidditch

This will be something new for the Letterkenny school’s ASW in June and has been requested by the pupils themselves. A fledgling sport in Ireland, quidditch has been adapted from the game that features in the Harry Potter novels. While participants’ feet stay firmly on the ground, they use camogie or hurleys sticks as their broomsticks.

Army assault course

Scoil Mhuire SNS in Newbridge, Co Kildare, makes the most of its location beside the Curragh during ASW. For the third year running sixth-class pupils will get the chance to run, jump and crawl their way through an Army obstacle course. The school handed it over to the Army to run “because we wanted it military style, not teacher style – so it was fresh for them and so they could experience ‘military training’,” says ASF co-ordinator Maire Springate. “The soldiers were wonderful; they turned up in full military gear and put the children through their paces. The children loved it – it was the absolute highlight for them. They rose to the occasion, and had such a laugh.”

Dancing parents

Mothers and fathers bringing pupils to the Newbridge school during ASW can also get involved by stopping to join in the whole-school dance in the yard first thing in the morning. The playing of a song with specified dance moves over the loudspeaker means everybody is following the same routine. “It’s almost like a flash mob,” says Springate. Aerobic sessions are also held in the parents’ room to mark the week.

Drop everything and dance

At regular intervals during a day, music starting to play over a school’s tannoy system is the signal for pupils and teachers to stop what they’re doing and get up and do a dance they have all learned together. Pioneered by the pupils of Glenageary Killiney National School, Co Dublin, with the Macarena in 2012, it has become a popular staple of ASW in other schools since.

Walk and talk

This was an initiative that the St Peter and Paul Junior National School in Balbriggan, Co Dublin, tried for the first time during its ASW earlier this year and has kept up since. It’s aimed at children who prefer to chat rather than play during break time. “They have a lovely chat in the yard but they are not getting an awful lot of activity,” says principal Siobhan Whelan. So now they are encouraged to keep moving as they converse with their friends. “Sometimes they will walk and talk with us if we’re supervising them,” she adds.

School radio

A spin-off from the Balbriggan school’s Active Week is a plan to start a “school radio”. Children got the broadcasting bug when they led “wake up, shake up” every morning over the tannoy. “They blew themselves away; they were so proud of themselves afterwards,” says Whelan. She envisages expanding that to children sharing news and playing music over the loudspeaker system. “Active School Week has given us ideas that we can bring out beyond it,” she adds.

For full details of Active School Flag programme see activeschoolflag.ie

ALL ABOARD THE SCOOTER T RAIN...

Just inside the black, wrought-iron gates at the southern end of Harold’s Cross Park, Dublin, on a sunny spring morning, children are arriving in ones and twos from all directions. Their helmets, high-vis jackets and two or three wheels under their feet mark them out as members of Ireland’s first school “scooter train”.

It’s here that the ethos of both the Active School Flag and the Green School Flag meet for pupils of St Clare’s Primary School, as they congregate to take a sustainable travel option for their morning commute to school.

Deputy principal Kate Liston, who co-ordinates the scooter train, has to shout to make her voice heard above the thrum of traffic passing on either side outside the railings of this Victorian sliver of green that dissects a main artery into the city centre.

“Stay in pairs; look out for pedestrians; listen to the leaders’ shouts and stay in one big line,” she reminds the 30-plus children, as they prepare to move off from under the shade of tall pine trees.

The two fifth-class boys at the head of the train, Cormac Murphy (11) and Andrew Roe (11), clearly take their leadership role very seriously indeed. They explain how they have to stay in the middle of the pavement and also initiate the “stopping” shout that ripples through the line when approaching a crossing.

The scooter train has been running every Wednesday since February, and such is its success, Liston is under pressure to increase both the frequency and numbers taking part. Yet for now she is sticking to a weekly trip for the core group of 33 children who have registered, trained and signed a contract of conditions for participation. “We will look at expanding again but it has to be done in an organised way.”

Taking the car out of the school run would always be among the objectives of the Green Schools programme, and Liston says they were inspired by the Galway Cycling Bus, which started operating in the Knocknacarra area of that city at the end of last year.

“We have a huge number of children scooting to school here so we wanted to do it in a safe, organised manner, that would be novel and sustainable,” she says. “We want to keep it going, in all weathers – every Wednesday without fail.”

The “Scooter Train” travels to St Clare’s NS. Photograph Nick Bradshaw
The “Scooter Train” travels to St Clare’s NS. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

Marshalling duties

Jen O’Mullane, mother of two participants, Alex (nine) and five-year-old Ben, is one of the volunteers on marshalling duties. A minimum of four parents is needed to help shepherd the scooter fleet through crossing points and past any perceived dangers on their 10-minute journey to the school.

Liston says they did a “scooter safety audit” before they started the train, to identify potential hazards on the route such as the entrance to a building site and a man-hole. They check regularly for new risks.

The trickiest part is right at the start as the scootering children have to be led across two roads as soon as they emerge from the park. But once that is accomplished it’s a relatively free-wheel northwards to the school, which is set back from the road in the grounds of a convent.

Do pedestrians ever object to sharing the pavement with the two-wheeled horde? Not so far, says Liston.

One morning O’Mullane thought a woman was about to give out, as the question “how many more?” was clearly etched on her face. But no, she turned with a sudden beam and said, “this is great!”

While the scooter train travels no faster than a brisk walking pace, the children still make quicker headway than one of those absurdities of modern life – commuters in high-powered cars stuck in traffic.

As the children and stewards are all in high-vis jackets, “we’re very visual to people sitting in their cars”, points out Liston, who hopes the sight of the scooter train might encourage car drivers to consider more sustainable methods of commuting – or at least to go out and try scootering with their own children.

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