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No more couch potato kids

Overstretched parents, tech-addicted kids and, shockingly, exercise levels dropping from the age of seven - what can be done to help children get moving again?

Do you remember that news story a few weeks back about how exercise levels in children starts declining from seven years old? We’re all used to hearing about how teens, especially girls, lose their interest in sport as their hormones kick in and they become more self-conscious, but seven?  I have an eight and nine year old and they’re always bombing around outside, bouncing, exploring and making up games. But of course if I think about it, what they’d like to do more than anything is to play on phones, eat sweets, compete on computer games and watch telly – and often beleaguered, exhausted parents (um, like me) give in to it.

So how to break the cycle and get your mini-couch potatoes moving? Ben Beardmore-Gray, headmaster at the supersporty Moulsford Prep School in Moulsford, South Oxfordshire is a man who knows – he’s been the headmaster at both boys and co-ed schools so knows how to motivate both young minds and bodies. Which is why we’ve rugby tackled him for his advice (because yes, we’re sporty like that). Read his insights below – I hope they help. And please do let me know what you think about the subject, I’d love to know your experiences.


1/ Fully understand why sport is so important for your kids

Sport teaches vital life skills. You learn to win, but it is also important to learn that you are not going to win in every situation and accepting that. Learning to lose at relatively small things like a sports match helps children be more resilient if they fail at the bigger things in life, such as not getting into the university they wanted to go to, or being turned down for a job interview. Then there is the camaraderie and bonding that comes with being part of a team – we are social animals and it is very important to our sense of identity. And I firmly believe that a healthy body and a heathy mind go hand in hand. It is easy for children to get stressed about their workload or their exams but sport can give them a break, help them understand that it is not all-consuming, and allow them to come back to the thing they are worried about with a fresh, new perspective.

2/ Make it a competition

In my experience, the best way to enthuse children about sport is to emphasise the fact it’s a game. Children respond really well to competition and love to win (although as discussed above, need to learn to lose too). They love praise and they love prizes. And it doesn’t have to be a material prize – a pat on the back and ‘good game’ could be enough.  If possible, encourage enthusiasm for sport when they’re young to instil good habits to last a lifetime. Small children like to be doing what their friends are doing – they feed off each other, and love running around playing with 20 other kids, so it’s easier to persuade them to try something when they’re young.

3/ Have a lazybones child? Persist!

Inevitably there are children who say they don’t like sport or competing. As a parent, it’s easy to give in and think, OK, she or he isn’t interested. But I strongly believe there’s something out there to enthuse every child – there’s a sport or activity for everyone. Throw loads of possibilities at the problem and see what sticks. They might not like rugby but find some niche sport instead – perhaps they love going to the climbing wall or playing table tennis. Do your research and seek out all the local clubs and activities in your area and keep going until you find something they enjoy.

4/ Don’t over-schedule them 

This happens frequently, with parents cramming in multiple activities. I do wonder: who is this benefiting? Children need down time, time at home just being kids, playing with Lego, jumping around in the back garden. The danger of children having too much structured sporting activity is that they can’t make decisions for themselves, they don’t learn to play by themselves and they don’t learn to make up their own games. You need to try and get the balance right between down time and structured extra-curricular sports.

5/ Don’t push just one sport

Children should be given as many opportunities as possible to try out different activities before the age of 12 or 13. At a young age, sport training shouldn’t be too intense and the emphasis should be on enjoyment. If they then want to get really good at, say, trampolining as a teenager, they can then specialise. It’s worth bearing in mind that only a tiny percentage of children will go on to be professional sportsmen or women. If your child is one of them, then it is fine to foster it but most children should be given lots of options until they’re old enough to make an informed decision for themselves about the sports on which they would like to focus.

Ben Beardmore-Gray, Moulsford School

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