Sports boost not only physical development but also cognitive and social skills, which is why one coaching programme is promoting ball skills even before children start school, writes Roddy Mackenzie
Warwick Dredge makes no wild claims about producing Scotland's sports stars of the future. The South African's Enjoy.a.Ball concept, aimed at developing ball skills in nursery and primary school-aged children, is more about laying foundations for a lifetime of enjoying sport.
Mr Dredge offers children aged 3 to 9 the chance to learn basic ball skills in eight sports: hockey, football, rugby, basketball, volleyball, tennis, baseball and cricket. Since arriving in Scotland six years ago, it has become so popular that there are now 1,500 children taking part in the activities every week, he says, with 10 other coaches in the central belt having taken up Enjoy.a.Ball franchises.
He started the programme 14 years ago in his native Johannesburg but it is still evolving, he says, and he is always open to ideas to develop the concept.
"When I was in South Africa, I found that sport in schools was quite competitive. On the first day, children were sent out to play football or whatever and the teams were picked," Mr Dredge explains. "The children found themselves in the A or the B team and the rest were virtually branded as useless at sport.
"That's not the case in South Africa now, but certainly back then there was not much sport that the less talented children could take part in.
"I spoke with a lot of PE teachers and I had friends who were tennis coaches and we came up with this development programme for younger children.
"It's evolving all of the time. We add a bit more here and there as we take on board ideas from other people.
"All we are trying to do is sow the seeds and encourage them into a sports lifestyle. If we can get them interested in sport at a primary school age then hopefully they will take it further."
Simplicity appears to be the key to the programme's success. It caters for four groups - the Bee Bops (aged 3 to 5), Grounders (5- and 6-year-olds), Playball (6- and 7-year-olds) and the Champs (aged 7 to 9) - with each group split into two levels. There are also classes for children with learning difficulties.
At the Bee Bops stage, the principal objective is an introduction to sports participation in an environment that is non-intimidating and the development of concentration and confidence in working with a ball through games.
The children progress to developing gross motor skills such as bouncing, catching and throwing a ball and balancing at the Grounders stage.
Then, at the Playball stage, they are introduced to the eight sports and teamwork. Finally, the Champs focus on advancing skills for specific sports, working on such things as basketball passing skills, as well as playing matches.
Mr Dredge does not favour one particular ball sport over another and some children who have attended his classes have gone on to take up sports outside the eight that are offered.
"A group of boys who were in our classes have recently gone away to play golf every Friday of their own accord. Golf is not one of the sports we offer, but that's fine by me. At least they are playing sport, which is the main thing, and we have given them a good grounding."
There are now four Enjoy.a.Ball coaches in Edinburgh, two in Glasgow, one in Dumfries and Galloway, one in West Lothian and two in East and Mid Lothian. There is also one in Newcastle and Mr Dredge expects another franchise to start in Northern Ireland in the new year and one on the Isle of Wight.
The Enjoy.a.Ball classes, costing parents pound;4 to pound;4.25 an hour, take place in community centres and some primary schools but Mr Dredge has had no luck getting into schools during the school day.
"I haven't really pursued it, but they have so many different groups looking to get in. If we could, we'd like to offer it during the school day," he says.
"The response we've had from parents has been fantastic. We've been overwhelmed by letters of support from them."
Mr Dredge believes that building confidence through sport plays a big part in a child's development.
"We do not claim to be about producing the next generation of Olympic stars," he continues. "It is just about giving children basic ball skills, which can only help them in the future.
"The psychology of the child is important. I think our methods help with confidence, concentration and social interaction. Confidence is paramount for me in the development of the child.
"It is important for us to work with small classes to give the child as much individual attention as possible. We try not to make classes any bigger than 10.
"I feel part of the problem with PE in schools is that, with classes of 25 to 30, it is difficult to be as effective in terms of improving the ball skills of pupils.
"In South Africa, there can be as many as 40 children in a class, but they seem to have more time for sport. Classes finish at around 2pm and then children head out to the sports fields to play games. That just doesn't happen in Scotland."
Enjoy.a.Ball, tel 0131 333 2286www.enjoyaball.com