A Kent primary has found skipping boosts pupils' mental and physical fitness. Jan Trebilcock reports
The school hall thunders with the sound of skipping. Thirty children and teachers pound the floor, encouraged by the rousing tones of rock anthem Eye of the Tiger and John McCormack, a beefy ex-boxer. When the two-minute session at All Faiths' Children's Community Primary in Strood, Kent, comes to an end, the panting boys and girls turn excitedly to each other to compare the skipping scores recorded on rope counters.
"Put your hands on your hearts and what do you feel?" asks John, as the sound of a pumping heart fills the hall. The children are soon explaining how blood carries oxygen to the brain, helping it function better. "Then we are ready to listen and learn," adds John.
During the next two-minute skip, John pushes everyone to outdo their previous score. This is no ordinary PE lesson. Mental arithmetic comes in as John asks children to calculate the difference between their first and second skips, older children work out averages and percentages. And pupils take their results into the technology class to plot graphs of their progress.
But one of the most important aspects of the skipping sessions is how it motivates the children, says Heidi Taylor, headteacher. The school is in one of the most deprived and challenging areas of the South East, with 32 per cent of the children eligible for free school meals and 28 per cent on the special needs register.
"When children start from a low base they need to make faster progress to catch up," says Heidi.
"Our first job is raising their self-esteem, making them believe in themselves and encouraging them to constantly challenge themselves. We want our children to feel like scientists, geographers, artists, writers and mathematicians."
The school brought John and his Skip2BFit programme in for a one-day session for six consecutive weeks, using funds from its personalised learning budget. Children as young as four join 20-minute sessions, while key stage 2 sessions last 45 minutes.
"Both boys and girls love the sessions with John," says Heidi. "They are learning about concentration and perseverance, and that transfers into the classroom. John makes a strong link with their academic work.
"They are learning to challenge themselves. And they soon understand that if you can improve in skipping, you can improve in maths and spelling. And of course they are also doing practical maths and data handling, using spreadsheets and graphs to record scores." Heidi says it's too early to see the effect on academic performance, but she says the sessions fit well with the ethos of the school. "The children's attitude to learning is hugely improved and Skip2BFit has contributed to that."
At the end of the class, the skippers receive laminated certificates and a box of blueberries. The child who's made the best effort, the most improved, and the "top banana" who achieved the most skips, are rewarded with T-shirts and certificates and a skipping rope to take home to get the family involved.
"This is such a simple idea, but it works and above all it's fun," says John. He came up with the idea after teachers attending his fitness classes in a sports centre in Ramsgate asked him to come to their school with his skipping tricks. Ten-year-old Connor agrees. "I can skip well fast," he says, proving his point with 335 skips in two minutes. "That's hummingbird skipping," says John.
"And how many skips could you do six weeks ago?" asks John, holding the end of the skipping rope like a microphone. "137," announces Connor. "And how does that make you feel?" asks John. "Very proud, because I practised and I've improved," says Connor, as he and John exchange a high five.
Medway Healthy Schools has sponsored Skip2BFit sessions in other schools in the area and given its seal of approval to John's lesson plans. Zoe Barnett, manager, says: "After the sessions, schools noticed the children were not only more active and continuing their skipping, but their mental agility and concentration improved enormously"