Let’s Press ‘Play’
“You see a child play, and it is so close to seeing an artist paint, for in play a child says things without uttering a word. You can see how he solves his problems. You can also see what’s wrong. Young children, especially, have enormous creativity, and whatever’s in them, rises to the surface in free play.” – Erik Erikson
Schools have a tremendous opportunity and an important responsibility to contribute to a child’s journey of growth and augmenting efforts of parents and caregivers. While they are centers of study, schools have the power to evolve into better centers of learning.
Children learn a lot through play. In play, they learn how to learn, so its serious work. This is their functional truth. Any program of study and ‘functional fitness’ needs to be sensitive about and responsive to this truth.
Why should schools care?
Because of 2 reasons, operating at different levels:
1) At the basic (and perhaps more immediate and attractive) level, a school can brand and market itself better. By making this approach a part of its daily DNA it can evolve beyond the usual ‘Sports Day’ Syndrome. It will then demonstrate greater intent and better ability to provide a holistic approach. Thus, a school will radiate a stronger appeal as a school of choice.
2) At a deeper and more far reaching level, schools set the tone for the future of children and the country. Children spend a considerable part of their day in school. So schools can, and should, play a big role in inculcating and supporting a lasting culture of health, excellence and respect for active lifestyles. They stand to play a prominent role in shaping thought, fitness and nutritional habits of younger generations. Given the right direction and ambience during their formative years, these habits will go a long way in improving the overall health and fitness quotient of our country. Consider this – India is projected to have the largest population of young adults in the world by the year 2020. Imagine the immense boost schools can provide towards a country’s economy and position in the world, in general, and sporting excellence at the national and international levels, in particular!
Excellence is not a product of ad hockery. It requires a plan and sustained efforts by all in the chain, and schools are a big part of it.
How can schools do this?
To achieve this, schools need to act beyond the traditional measures of incorporating physical education (PE) and seriously consider nutrition and health management in their portfolio. They need to proactively work towards taking PE beyond the ‘policy’ phase and/or tokenism and make it more relevant and fruitful. Schools should build and utilize the concept of ‘Functional fitness habits for children’ in a smarter way.
Functional fitness programs (for children) have an important role to play in encouraging children into fitness for the long term.
At their core, these functional fitness programs need to be simple and uncluttered. They should grasp the fact – exercise must be fun for it to graduate to a lifestyle choice.
There are varying levels of physical and mental abilities in children from KG to Grade 12, but their response to ‘fun’ at almost all ages is similar. Start them and keep them moving with fun while form and technique can be taught over time. The challenge is to make these activities regular, with greater participation. The bigger challenge is for schools to recognize this as an integral aspect of a child’s overall development, that adds to their mental agility, happiness and improved academic performance.
There is no denying that each school may have its own set of practical issues. But they can figure out a way to work around them.
Here are a few simple ways and creative tweaks that can aid current school programs become more impactful and hold children’s interest over the long term.
1. Time the PE periods right:
Physical activity should be slotted intelligently in school time tables, based on the season and weather conditions of the place. Sometimes this rather obvious fact is missed.
A late afternoon (outdoor) swimming session may work well in a place that enjoys good weather, but it’s almost criminal in cities where the overhead summer sun is scorching. The Indian summer is usually harsh in most States, with temperatures skyrocketing in the afternoons. And there are hardly any all-weather covered pools available. Swim times need to be mindful of this reality.
Likewise, placing Physical Education periods post meal breaks, without adequate gaps, is thoughtless planning.
Many schools appear to reserve the early morning sessions for ‘special coaching’ and not regular PE time, thereby restricting it to select participants compared to the total student population. Tweak the time so that more and more children can avail a good start to the day and the weather is not too inclement.
2. Think beyond ‘structured programs’:
While it’s fantastic to have sport specific coaching, there should be a nudge towards using the school facilities for creative physical pursuits.
For example, a part of the field and track could be set up for an interesting obstacle course which the coach/sports teachers could assemble differently at intervals, for all to use. It would add a challenge for the regular ‘sporsters’ and it could be exciting for a ‘break-time’ play for others.
Get creative with field days and sports days too by incorporating fun challenges and not following the same pattern of drills year after year. There are many versions of fun races and activities that the children (and parents) could perform, stretching themselves physically in a safe, fun manner. (*contact ‘Body in Motion’ team if you need help for your school).
3. Start a Mileage Club:
The idea is to encourage and reward students for notching up mileage on a daily basis and building an active habit in the process. Children should have the liberty to do this whenever free (not during their study periods, of course) without disturbing others, and not just in the PE slots.
Here’s one way it could possible be designed:
- They could walk or run as per choice. (Make a distinction between these activities for fair play).
- Set up mileage markers on the school track or around school within its premises. If the school allows use of pedometers, students can record data on them.
- Assign people to track mileage. They could be members of school staff/coaches/ or appointed students. Participants can report their mileages to them.
- Decide the format (duration -fortnightly / monthly / quarterly etc.; distance– say every ‘x’ miles covered fastest) in conjunction with students.
- Roll out this club at a level easy for the school to manage – individual participation across school or group based (class wise/section wise/junior-mid-senior school).
- The same could be set up for the staff as well and could run parallel to the students edition.
- For greater engagement a Wall of Fame could be setup and winners featured on this wall.
- Decide rewards with students inputs, which would keep the excitement and fun high. For example, it could be a free meal coupon from the school canteen, a ticket to an upcoming event exciting for kids, a higher count towards a better sports grade etc.
Get creative within a budget.
This may slowly help the sedentary students and teachers transition to becoming regular walkers and the walkers transition into joggers/runners.
4. Student Success Stories and Health Tips:
Encourage students to present health/fitness tips as part of morning assembly along with news, announcements and all else they keep presenting. They should be encouraged to share their own success stories/anecdotes and research on anything that would be a fun tip for all to learn and implement. Students can additionally set up a ‘challenge for the day/week’ as per their choice and announce it at assembly time. It could be vetted by the sports coach to ensure safety while having some active fun.
5. “Action Pictures” Project:
Students can be asked to photo-document (and have a class-share of) any physical activity performed over the week (cleaning cars, gardening, cleaning cabinets, carrying groceries, walking the dog, participation in any local physical events such as a run or a team sport etc.). This would encourage activity beyond school hours. And importantly, it will encourage children to participate in and respect regular family chores.
6. Start a nutrition challenge:
Award the healthiest and tastiest home-cooked-lunch of the week/month etc. Students can share the recipe. Emphasis should not only be on nutrition but also on taste and ease of making. (It should not be taxing for the parent/caregiver involved). Students should know ingredients used and have an idea about the method of preparation. It would be even better if they participate in the making process at any level. This should be encouraged in a gender neutral way.
7. Rework the school canteen:
Offer nutritious choices and little to no junk food. Utilize a nutritionist’s inputs, if possible, to decide food and meal items on offer in school canteens. Take care to address both taste and health. It would be more effective than going solely by vendor’s choices. A school’s canteen can easily undo family efforts at inculcating good eating habits if it doesn’t offer choices that are in the interest of students’ health.
There should not be dual standards followed for teachers and students to the greatest extent possible. The school staff has to be the role model too.
Cheat days can be built in to prevent it from feeling too regimented. Balance is the key word. A sense of deprivation is certainly not the objective nor a desired outcome.
Having a nutritionist on board could help offer food solutions for children at school, as well as family meals at home.
8. Teach students to read food labels:
For better informed food choices. Most adults also lack ability to read and make sense of nutrition labels printed on packing. Starting kids early with this might translate to better food choices and more intelligent food shopping for the whole family. Teach them about portions while at it. A nutritionist could help in this as well.
9. Engage Parents and Grandparents:
An initiative started in school has greater impact if there is continuity in the home environment. Engage with caregivers – Parents and Grandparents – on topics such as basic exercises, nutrition, debunking common myths related to exercise and nutrition. Make them more active and informed partners in the fitness journey of their wards and themselves.
10. Take it beyond school hours:
Before schools break for longer vacations, have teachers and students discuss places of interest and what all activities one can (and should,with a little goading) pursue apart from sightseeing and eating. Students could be asked to share such active experiences and new discoveries when school resumes. This could inspire children to make similar choices and seek more active vacation options. Nothing inspires children more than narrations of thrilling experiences by their friends.
11. Inspire by Example:
There are many highly talented young athletes and budding sports persons who are struggling to make ends meet and pursue their passion. The school community could adopt a young athlete and actively help in and follow her/his progress. This would inculcate a sense of collective pride in students, ignite passion for sports, respect for discipline and help a youngster achieve his/her dreams, while possibly inspiring birth of a few more success stories in the process.
Implementing ideas is not that difficult. Thinking of them and demonstrating the will to ‘walk the talk’ is. It matters more. Schools can take assistance of qualified Training professionals to help design/run the programs or train their staff for the same. As much as children need to make fitness and healthy nutrition a lifestyle habit, schools need to make these programs a habit too, to see tangible results.
Paulo Coelho sums up the potential of children simply and powerfully:
“Only children believe they’re capable of everything”.
What a powerful and fertile mindset to work with and train! Are you ready?