What can we do to ensure nine-year-olds are doing enough exercise?
Colin Baty, head of Bedales Prep School, Dunhurst, discusses how his school is countering recent findings, which have revealed Year 5 children are not doing enough exercise.
Recent research by academics at Exeter and Plymouth universities has found that just one per cent of girls and five per cent of boys in Year 5 are getting the recommended amount of exercise each day. Although the study found that a third of pupils averaged an hour per day, official guidelines recommend young people between five and 18-years-old should get at least an hour of moderate-to-vigorous-intensity physical activity each day if they are to stay healthy.
This underlines the importance of a curriculum that encourages – requires, even – children to be physically active. An obvious and perfectly justifiable response is to look to the part PE plays in the school day – both as timetabled lessons, and as an extra-curricular feature of school life. However, we should be mindful that the existence of opportunity to do exercise and sport does not automatically translate to good use of the time. In late 2017 the charity Women in Sport reported that only 56% of girls enjoyed being physically active at school compared to 71% of boys. Only 45% of girls saw the relevance of PE to their lives, compared to 60% of their male peers. The relative indifference of girls to boys when it comes to physical activity is a concern. However, my overriding response is that both genders are considerably less enamoured with it than I would prefer.
At Bedales, and this includes my school Dunhurst, we have a good record of sporting excellence, but not at the cost of mainstream educational objectives – including those related to pupil wellbeing. We understand sport and PE as an opportunity for kids to try new things, and to get used to the idea that it is not the end of the world if it doesn’t work out. We want our pupils to feel confident as well as competent, and to experience and understand the obligations and joys of teamwork. This all sounds very good on paper, of course, but in practice it comes down to our staff going out of their way to structure sport and PE so that there is something to engage every child, and to temper the urge to win with a more sophisticated understanding of the value to be found in sporting encounters. Sport has so much to teach about character, perseverance and working together. Our representative sports teams are often very successful, and we take great pleasure in that – but we enjoy it just as much when a pupil who had professed to hate sport begins to enjoy it, or when a team finds a way, collectively, to fight their way back into a losing game, whether they go on to win or not. Our overriding aim, then, is to configure what we do and how we do it to make sure our pupils can find something to value and enjoy. If we get that right, the wellbeing aspects fall into place.
This same ethic applies to the rest of the Dunhurst curriculum. We teach an educationally demanding curriculum in the most interesting and imaginative ways we can conceive. Where possible, this means getting out into the school grounds – perhaps identifying birds, growing vegetables or caring for lambs. Without them ever having to think about it, then, our pupils are physically active throughout their school day and beyond. We believe a good and interesting education should be an absorbing one - it is perfectly possible to sneak all manner of personal and educational benefits past pupils’ defences when they are suitably distracted by having fun.