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‘Forget elite sport – it’s getting kids active and having fun that counts’

Imogen Buxton-Pickles, presenter for, writes:

MPs, the NHS and the media are constantly getting their knickers in a major twist about girls’ reluctance to get involved in sport – not to mention the health consequences of a sedentary lifestyle. But, in my opinion, they’re looking in the wrong place for solutions.

Much of girls’ reluctance to do sport is to do with body image: they don’t like their bodies being scrutinised by teenage boys ("I don’t want them looking at my legs") – who can blame them? – and they don’t like messing up their hair and make-up.

But my 15 years of working in schools have told me that some of these image issues are already present at primary school. Many girls not far beyond the start of their primary schooling are expressing worries about what boys will think of them, especially when they’re not fully dressed and covered in sweat. Are they too fat, too big, too small, they ask.

A recent Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee report on women in sport, published earlier this summer, explored many of these issues and came up with some sensible recommendations. But I believe there’s too much focus on the need to create a talent pipeline to produce elite sportswomen. The big wins are in getting young children active and, crucially, having fun.

That’s how we’ll fight obesity, type 2 diabetes and all the other health consequences of inactivity that are taking such a dreadful toll. Committee chair John Whittingdale was on the right track when he said: "Good habits are learnt early, and it is a sad fact that many girls are put off sport by school games lessons. Many of our recommendations therefore are aimed at increasing the variety of sports on offer."

He’s right – though in my view we should be aiming to increase the variety of activities on offer. Here’s what we need to do:

•      Get the habit of exercise ingrained at primary school – secondary is far too late to address an underlying resistance to take part in sport. But we have to make it fun: a bad experience of sport or PE or sport early in life stays with children throughout their school career and very often into their adult life beyond.

•      We shouldn’t be focusing on which sport or PE activity pupils do or don’t take part in. Children have widely differing responses to individual sports, so they tend to be less inclusive. Some sports demand skills that children simply don’t have. It’s doing a physical activity that counts – not which activity.

•      My mantra: make it fun, challenging and achievable.

I go into primary schools all over the country to teach dance – but nothing to do with pirouettes or tutus or pinkness. I teach classes in everything from Street Jazz to Bollywood. What matters is that they’re active and they’re having a great experience. No doubt Sir Ken Robinson would agree.

And dance themes can easily be extended across the curriculum; if we’re doing the Greeks or Romans, how tempting to extend dance into history and geography.

But we can’t get children active if we don’t have staff with the skills – and the confidence – to teach them.

Even though dance comes under the PE ‘umbrella’ at primary school – it’s supposed to make up one-fifth of the PE curriculum – many teachers recoil from the idea of a dance class and fear it’s way beyond their capabilities. I know from experience that they’re wrong – they can be trained quickly to become competent in teaching the type of dance I do. I’ve seen the results for myself.

There’s so much to gain from this type of approach, so it’s particularly depressing to see this week’s analysis of primary school children’s involvement in arts activities, which shows a 33 per cent decline in participation in dance – from 45 per cent to 29 per cent.

Why is dance being pushed to the back at the very time it should be centre stage?

Related links

Cha-cha-change the balance in schools: Devote equal time to dance and maths, urges Sir Ken Robinson

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