Gerald Haigh finds rope tricks are catching on again in the playground
A mid all the po-faced initiatives, directives and strategies this winter, the news that skipping is making a quiet but rapid return to the playground is surely fit to make us smile with relief. The primary school world, it seems, has not entirely abandoned its cherished commitment to joyful leaping about.
It's the word as much as anything - "skipping" - redolent with images of lambs and small children and grandma and endless Summer days long ago, in the Land of Lost Content.
So when teacher Ruth Jackson told me she'd been to a "skipping workshop", and that there had been a skipping in-service training day in her school, St Paul's junior in Nuneaton, where she's PE co-ordinator, I thought the whole thing seemed irresistible. Sure enough, there on the playground at St Paul's, at lunchtime, on a cold day, lots of children were skipping. They weren't just doing the easy stuff either. Oh dear no. There was a long rope going, with a dinner lady on each end and children queuing up to run in.
And all around were boys and girls practising their individual crossovers and doubles. A few, indeed, were attempting the legendary "Pretzel", which, as the name suggests, seems to involve tying yourself in a knot, while keeping the rope turning.
All of that, it seems, is down to the enthusiasm of Ruth Jackson and a visit to the school by Sue Dale of Skipping Workshops. Sue is one of a team of instructors who are currently doing skipping demonstrations in some 40 schools every week across the whole of the UK.
"The workshop was wonderful" Ruth Jackson says. "It was just so funny to see boys hopping on one leg getting entangled with their ropes."
The whole enterprise is the brainchild of Harold Galley, an Ofsted inspector and formerly head of Bond primary in Wimbledon, where his enthusiasm for skipping led to the school being one of the first in the country to have a skipping display team. "I left Bond in 1997," Harold says. "I started doing skipping workshops, and now I have 25 instructors across the British Isles doing presentations on my model. What was a hobby has turned into quite a big business."
While most of the schools that take Harold's workshops see children taking up playground skipping, a few go on to real stardom. Wybers Wood junior in Grimsby, for example, has a fully-fledged display team, The Wybers Wood Wallabies, with its own uniform. Louise Aisthorpe, one of the two teaching assistants who run the team, says: "We've done displays in different parts of the country, we go to the Loughborough Skipping Festival each year and we went to a school in Boston as part of their Healthy Living Week."
The Wallabies put on an electrifying show of speed and skill. "It's a bit like dancing," Louise Aisthorpe says. "We do it to music, mostly in unison but with some individual routines." As you would expect, it doesn't end with the team. Skipping is well embedded at Wybers Wood, where Louise and her colleague run a skipping club after school twice a week for about 40 children. It is easy to see why skipping has always been popular with children.
It fulfils the necessary requirement of any sport that aspires to mass participation by being easy at the entry level while giving enthusiasts a chance to become highly skilled in spectacular ways. The skipping moves called "Rodeo" and "Lariat", for example, just two of many demonstrated by some super children on Harold Galley's instructional video (see the Skipping Workshops website) involve steady but elaborate turns of the rope while the body performs intricate contortions inside it. Ruth Jackson is content that St Paul's children are enjoying their skipping, but points out that the solid educational criteria are there if you need them.
"In primary we're having to aim for two hours of quality PE a week," she says, "And an element of that is being able to apply physical skills in a new situation."
Sue Dale, who runs an adult display team as well as coaching in school says: "Most sports people use it as a conditioner - rugby clubs, tennis players. Skipping is everything - speed, stamina, agility." There's also a case to be made, she says, for skipping as a means of improving co-ordination.
Louise Aisgarth agrees. "When they start at Year 3 they're having to learn to control their hands and feet at the same time, and they really come on with that."
The same principle that active children are better learners lies behind Take Ten, another resource Ruth Jackson uses and which complements the Skipping Workshops programme very well. Originating from Devon authority, this is a pack of ideas for a wide range of enjoyable daily 10-minute physical activities. There are instructional DVDs (one of which has skipping instruction) and lots of teaching ideas.
Direct learning benefits apart, though, it's really just a delight to see children working hard at an enjoyable and traditional exercise. Crucially, it is also great fun. To see Ruth Jackson walking the playground at St Paul's sharing jokes with skipping children is to realise that there is something going on here that can have a significant effect on playground behaviour and so on a school's overall atmosphere and values.
www.skipping-workshops.co.ukTelephone 020 8786 7707 "Take Ten Fit to succeed" from Devon authority. Details at www.devon.gov.ukealacatalogDevon_EAL_s_Shop_Physical_Education_2.htmlTele phone 01392 384846