Play - It's all fun and games in Glasgow sport scheme

Pilot initiative gives children a chance to learn through play

The signs say it explicitly: no ball games. The tall fences imply it. The message is reinforced by parents who, fearful of violence and drugs, keep their children indoors every evening.

In parts of Scotland, children constantly face barriers to playing freely, but one project has set out to change that in some of the country's poorest communities.

The year-long Active Play trial with primary children in Glasgow's East End has taken a counter-intuitive approach to encouraging young people to take up sport, letting them run free without the burden of coaching or timetables - or, indeed, any mention of sport, at least at first.

Active Play forms part of the legacy push associated with next year's Commonwealth Games and relies on spur-of-the-moment enthusiasm. A team of "play rangers" from the charity Possibilities for East End Kids (PEEK) knock on doors and send text messages to remind parents that an Active Play session is about to start. Children can arrive or leave at any time.

Sessions are free and take place outdoors from about 3.30pm to 5pm most weekdays. Rangers are ready to provide children with red wellington boots and raincoats so that only the worst weather leads to cancellation.

At their first sessions, the children are allowed simply to run around and play, supervised by the rangers. Later on, they are permitted to try athletics, basketball and tennis, although free play continues for those who prefer to stick with that. Those who show most enthusiasm for sport are introduced to structured coaching elsewhere.

Interim evidence on the scheme, which has involved 280 children since it began in December, shows that over a six-month period from February to July this year, 39 out of 95 children at the Cranhill site have gone on to formal sports sessions. At another site in Cadder, 37 out of 95 children have done so. A full report is due out in early 2014.

There has been no other project like it, according to Julia Abel, a performance adviser at Inspiring Scotland, the philanthropic organisation that provides half the project's #163;30,000 funding (the other half comes from the government). Although other play-based projects have existed in Scotland, she said that Active Play was the first to create a pathway from free play to structured coaching.

"It's about levelling the playing field in Scotland," Ms Abel said. "A lot of sporting activity is inaccessible if you haven't been lucky enough in life to have parents who support you or you're not from a fairly middle-class community."

Exceptional sporting talent might be hidden in deprived communities, she said, but children were often discouraged from being active by "no ball games" signs or the partitioning of public areas with tall fences. Some parents kept their children indoors because they perceived their community to be rife with violence and drugs, she added.

Theresa Campbell, a senior teacher in primary physical education at the University of Glasgow, has evaluated the scheme; she found that children had more energy and were happier after taking part in Active Play.

"You see children experiencing the joy of play in their own local environment and developing the skills and motivation to organise their own activities with friends," she said. "The Active Play team were supporting and encouraging the children's play rather than leading or controlling their activity, and, for me, this is what makes this programme special."

The people behind the initiative are looking at ways to keep the project going after the trial ends in December. Aidan Gallacher, project manager with Active East, a 2014 Commonwealth Games legacy programme that works with PEEK, said: "It is really getting back to the 'jumpers for goal posts' culture that so many generations have enjoyed and benefited from in the past."

Play's the thing

The Scottish government launched a "national play strategy" in June. It states that schools which "provide rich outdoor free play environments report happier children, better break-time behaviour and children who are better able to concentrate in class".

The Active Play trial is part of the government's #163;1.9 million investment in the Go2Play fund, which is run by philanthropic organisation Inspiring Scotland.

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