How to win on sports day

The tradition of sports day is stronger than the will to ignore it. And done well, it can strengthen school-parent ties. Laura Peters has some pointers.

It may not be quite as exciting as Formula One, but primary schools tend to keep to a formula on sports day. This comprises the same races, the same prizes and the same rules.

I once taught in a school whose summer term one year was so busy with community events that sports day was "forgotten". Excepting one or two teachers who felt a tinge of guilt at depriving the pupils of this activity, and a handful of disgruntled parents, this act of solidarity went seemingly without notice. Interestingly, it never happened again.

Sports days are often included in the primary school calendar out of a sense of tradition rather than commitment to strengthening school-parent links, developing healthy, active lifestyles and displaying a positive school ethos.

Small primary schools have the advantage of being able to hold their races in one afternoon. Many larger schools separate the nursery and infant departments from the rest of the school and hold morning and afternoon sports events. This can be a long, cumbersome day for some parents. Informing parents of the running order of events prior to sports day will help working parents to rearrange their work commitments so as not to miss their children's races.

Other primaries run heats before sports day, leaving the finals to the day itself. This can allow the majority of pupils to join the rest of the spectators while a few pupils compete.

If all pupils are to share in the enjoyment of the day, plenty of novelty races should be included in the programme.

The best sports days are often those that involve well-behaved senior pupils setting out the equipment for each race and taking responsibility for its success. And on arrival, guests are greeted with pupils distributing programmes.

While being informative, programmes can create a lot of litter. One solution to this problem is numbering them and raffling them for a prize the following day. Another, is having pupils walking around towards the end of the day with rubbish bags collecting them.

A further point of concern can be the venue. With few primary schools having their own recreation grounds, most primary schools' sports are held on public property. Local secondary pupils could show up and cause trouble. In fact, virtually anyone who is willing to take a sports day programme could be admitted to the grounds. So, careful thought should be given to security.

Pupils sitting on benches while parents are required to stand is a common feature of sports days. This can exclude grandparents and older members of the school community from attending the event. If parents are expected to wander around for the duration, it is no wonder many do not share their children's enthusiasm for the event. So think about seating.

Even more bizarre are cases where parents are not permitted near the grounds of the actual races, but are requested to spectate from a pavilion or shed some distance away. Such parents have to rely on binoculars to obtain a glimpse of their child, which is neither encouraging to the young participants nor exciting for the parents.

This lack of amenity can contribute to parents behaving badly. Armed with food, beverages, cigarettes and a mobile phone, parents can be well equipped to cause a disturbance.

Sadly, not all parents are model citizens. Some even walk across the track during the actual races. So think about having crowd control ropes or race stewards.

As the tension rises at the peak of a race, many younger children slow down as they reach the finishing rope. Faced with a barrage of intimidating parents, these pupils feel safer slowing down rather than lunging forward to victory. Confident participants who choose the latter option often have to skilfully avoid crashing into parents poised at the finishing line with their camcorders rolling. This can be a greater challenge than the race itself and a truly breathtaking sight. It also explains why so few teachers volunteer for crowd control duty, so think about cordoning off an after-race zone.

With nowhere to sit and comfortably watch the races, ineffectual parents do little to stop their pre-schoolers running rampage and disrupting pupils. A common strategy used for keeping these children happy is continuously supplying them with food. This can cause problems if young children are running around munching and drinking in front of older siblings who have to wait until the permitted time for a snack.

Some parents try to sneak food to their children when teachers are not looking. Once a P2 pupil, a particularly pushy child who had to be first at everything except the races, began wolfing down her snacks within 10 minutes of arrival at the grounds. When her teacher assertively suggested that the girl wait until break time to finish, her mother shouted out: "Oh, that's my fault. I gave her them. It's all right darlin'. Here's some more for later." And after blowing cigarette smoke in the teacher's face, she promptly replenished her child's provisions.

Some parents are unhelpful in other ways. "Don't pick that up, Stephanie. You didn't drop it" was once heard from someone who did not share the school's view about keeping the grounds tidy.

The sight of disappointed children, particularly infants, is one that teachers and parents are well accustomed too. One way of softening the blow is to award a sports sticker to every participating pupil and award special "1st", "2nd" and "3rd" prize stickers to the race winners and runners-up.

More upsetting is the sight of parents complaining that their child lost a race because of another child getting in the way or accusing children (not theirs) of cheating. Second and third positions tend to be the strongest contested. Like their children, some parents find it hard to accept that the judge's decision is final, but stand your ground.

One year, Annie, a six year old who was new to the school, was very excited about her races. So, too, was her mum, who would not stop talking to Annie while she sat on the bench with her class. Unfortunately, Annie was unable to concentrate on the races and her mum at the same time. When Annie's class was collected for their race, poor Annie was still in deep conversation with her chattering mum. When the teacher told Annie to hurry up to join her class, Annie got up and in her rush, the zip of her jacket stuck. Both teacher and mum could not get Annie ready in time. The race began without Annie. By the time the zip had broken, the last girl had reached the finishing rope.

Undeterred, Annie ran her race solo and her face beamed as she waved triumphantly past the finishing line.

After all, it's not the winning that's important is it?


* Have a mass warm-up activity before the races.

* Have a race in which the youngest and oldest pupils, P1 and P7, work co-operatively. This provides an opportunity to develop the buddy system that operates in many schools.

* Ensure that each stage has a different novelty race so that races are not being repeated by the same pupils year after year. Some favourites are:

"Washing line" - a running race in which children hang up items of clothing with pegs.

"Late for school" - a running race in which children have a task at a given point. The tasks might include tying your school tie, writing your name 10 times, packing a schoolbag and putting it over your shoulder and tying your shoe laces.

"Horseshoe" - running in pairs, shoulder to shoulder, with the partners joining hands behind their backs.

"Horse and jockey" - running in pairs back to back, with arms crossing over the partner's stomach. The children swop positions halfway through.

* A parents' sprint is traditional in many schools. While popular, this tends to attract only the sporty types. A not too demanding obstacle race is more likely to encourage fun loving, extrovert parents. The winners should receive an attractive prize.

* Organise a staged staff race. Costumes might include designer sportswear, athletic vests with numbers pinned on them, T-shirts scrawled with "It's a fix" or tennis whites. One teacher could deliberately cheat, one could trip someone up, one could get "hurt" and the "paramedics" could be sent in with the first aid box.

* Integrate sports day with promoting healthy lifestyles. Tuck shops could exclusively sell healthy foods and drinks such as bottled water, juice, dried and fresh fruit. PTAs or schools that provide children with a snack could offer pupils an exotic selection of fruits that have been cut up, rather than crisps and sugary drinks.

* Have a special finale to mark the end of the day, such as a tug of war or parent and child race.

* Use pupil councils for feedback on sports day. Listen to the comments and make note of ideas for next year's event.

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