Schooling children in physical activity for life

There are plenty of classroom initiatives but what really gets pupils on the move?


Patricia Dunne’s three children often suggest now that they all walk to granny’s house and leave the car at home. It might sound like a small thing but it is indicative of their new-found awareness of taking the active option whenever possible, which she attributes to what has been going on in their school for the past six months.

Cormac, Niamh and Paul Dunne all attend St Peter and Paul’s National School in Drumconrath, outside Navan, in Co Meath, one of the latest of almost 200 schools to have been awarded an Active School Flag.

Established by the Department of Education and Skills in 2009, the programme is designed to recognise schools that “strive to achieve a physically educated and physically active school community”. And they really do have to earn it.

A minimum requirement is that the school provides the recommended one hour’s physical education (PE) a week.

After that, it is invited to “self-evaluate” its current status in 15 different areas, such as the PE curriculum, extra-curricular activities and activity during break times, and then implement at least one improvement in each.

An assessor then visits to evaluate the progress made and decide if the school is worthy of the flag.

Exercise initiatives
The principal of St Peter and Paul’s, Joanne Carroll, says “the whole school has changed” since starting to work towards the flag last September.

“People are excited about it – even community wise; the parents are coming in and talking about it.”

Initiatives include splitting their PE time into to two half-hours, so children have it twice each week, and targeting every Wednesday as walk-to-school day.

They have put markings on the playground, such as hopscotch and a running circuit, to encourage more physical activity at break time and rotate classes around “zoned” areas, such as the all-weather pitch, basketball court and badminton in the hall so they all get a go at everything.

At 12.25pm every day, all the pupils in third to sixth class go outside to run a circuit of the school, jumping in the air or touching the ground at the sound of a whistle.

“We noticed at the start of it when they ran they would be very out of breath and we needed to fix that,” says Carroll. “There are children who wouldn’t do the full lap who are now fine, so it has made a big difference.”

The school now devotes all “golden time” (ie discretionary time) to physical activity, where once it might have been used for something like board games. And all 125 pupils enjoy an extra 15 minutes’ activity outside every Friday afternoon as a reward for the week.

As well as running an Active School Week, another key feature has been the starting of a Be Active After-School Activity Programme for first and second class every Monday, a scheme promoted by the Health Service Executive. It is teacher-led but supported by six volunteer parents, including Helen Gilsenan, who says her son Mark, along with the rest of the children, really enjoys it.

It has also encouraged her to be more active: “When you come home from work, you are inclined to just sit down.”

Carroll believes the children in her school will always remember what they have achieved over the past few months and she hopes this will encourage them to stay active.

“It really works,” she adds. “Every single teacher and student has totally embraced it and that is why it has worked.”

Promoting healthier lifestyles

The Active School Flag is one of the best programmes around in the drive to promote healthier lifestyles among schoolchildren – something that is badly needed.

The 2010 “Children’s Sport Participation and Physical Activity” (CSPPA) study identified that only 19 per cent of primary school children and just 12 per cent of secondary school pupils were meeting the Department of Health and Children’s recommended minimum level of 60 minutes’ physical activity each day.

Three years on, the study’s lead author, Dr Catherine Woods of Dublin City University, explains: “If you want to get a child more active, it has to be a whole-school approach.

“That means policies in the school support extra-curricular activity; they support walking and cycling to school; they support physical education and quality training for teachers, and they have an ethos around promoting physical activity as part of the health and wellbeing of the child.”

There is a very good PE curriculum for primary schools. However, the CSPPA data would suggest the implementation of it is very varied and very games-orientated, she says, as opposed to including dance and gymnastics, aquatic and outdoor adventures. “So it is not for all, nor is it balanced.”

Educating children
For this reason, you can’t say that the more time devoted to PE the better. Anyway, PE is not designed to deliver the required amount of exercise for a healthy lifestyle but rather to educate children about how to be physically active.

“What we do know is if you have a good teacher, who is really committed to the subject, it doesn’t matter what the facilities are like, it really doesn’t.”

Woods agrees the Active Flag is a “fabulous concept” but argues that it is “massively under-resourced”. According to the Department of Education and Skills, the annual budget for the scheme is €80,000, down from €116,000 in 2011.

Yet at the same time, there is a much greater awareness of the flag scheme and schools are really keen to engage with it, says co-ordinator Karen Cotter.

“Every application form reveals something of interest in terms of the imaginative time- and cost-efficient ways that schools are coming up with to energise the school day.”

Her favourites include a hula hoopathon, “drop everything and dance day” and “penalties against the principal”.

Primary school teachers are “bombarded” with resource packs from outside organisations, says Caitríona Cosgrave, who teaches at St Colmcille’s Junior National School in Knocklyon, Dublin, and is a committee member and former chairwoman of the Irish Primary PE Association.

The last month alone has seen the launch of the Irish Heart Foundation ’s “Action for Life 2” programme and news of the upcoming “Moo Crew Primary Dairy Moovement” from the National Dairy Council. Then there’s the Lidl Fit Factor, Aviva’s “beat the bleep” fitness challenge for first and second-year pupils in secondary schools and the aforementioned Be Active ASAP, to name just a few.

While they are all well-intentioned, often very attractively presented , she says teachers need to be judicious in their choices.

“The bottom line is there is a curriculum there – these are supports for the curriculum and can’t be seen to be replacing it,” stresses Cosgrave, who helped draw up “Action for Life 2” and piloted it at her school. It includes a “Rainy Days” section, which builds on the “Bizzy Breaks” section of the previous edition – essentially exercises for children to do at their desks when they can’t get out.

For example, one which goes down well in her class is chair aerobics: “You put on a piece of music and they are sitting in their chairs and doing all the actions on the spot for up to 10 minutes.”

Is that really beneficial? “You need to be consistent in how you use it but not overuse it or children get bored. In terms of my own children, it enlivens them when they need to be enlivened and it can have the opposite effect as well, calms them down when they need to be calmed down. ”

Piecemeal approach

While undoubtedly most of these programmes are valuable in their own way, it is a very piecemeal approach. Are more fundamental changes needed for all primary schools?

“From the age of four to 12, the motor skill development in children is enormous,” points out Woods. Therefore, there is an argument that there is more of a need for PE specialists at primary school than secondary school.

With the extension of primary teacher training from three years to four years for students who started college last September, PE will be one of the specialisations being offered for the extra year.

It’s not rocket science to make changes, Woods says. How about instead of the infant classes getting out an hour earlier than the rest of the school, they had an extra hour at the end of the day devoted to physical activity – ie playtime, not PE? Not only would it address a real need for the children but parents/minders would have only one pick-up.

Teachers routinely giving PE homework, as Cosgrave does, would also send an important message home. And how often does a child’s progress in PE come up at teacher-parent meetings?

The tendency of many schools to keep children indoors at break time when there is the faintest drizzle outside is another matter to be scrutinised.

The problem here is more the parents than the principals, as people precious about their children getting wet and mucky outside are likely to be more vocal than those who wonder why their children are sitting in and watching TV.

But it’s not a decision without consequence, argues Woods. “You are training a child to see rain equals being inside. In effect they are not protecting the child – you could argue that they are actually conditioning the child to an unhealthy future.”

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