Smash hit

21st June 2013 at 01:00
As UK tennis fans wait to see whether Scottish star Andy Murray will triumph at Wimbledon, David White joins a school group touring the grounds of the All England Club. From trying out rackets to dressing up in Victorian costumes, there's plenty for them to learn, he discovers

The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, with its grandeur, tradition and international reputation, is best known for staging the annual Wimbledon tournament, which starts next week.

And with Scottish player Andy Murray expected to make his most serious attempt to date at taking the Grand Slam title this year, the complex has perhaps never had a higher profile among Britain's children.

Over the next fortnight, hundreds of thousands of fans of all ages will descend on the Mecca of tennis to sample high-quality sport, superb socialising and overpriced strawberries. Millions more - in the UK and around the world - will follow it on television.

But what most spectators won't realise is that the 17 hectares of club grounds also play host to an education programme that involves students attending lessons throughout the year.

Last year, its education department received 270 visits from 7,500 school, college and university students, who took part in workshops, lectures and tours.

Indeed, the club employs a team of teachers to integrate Wimbledon life into English national curriculum subjects. It is a fascinating take on cross-curricular teaching.

So, for example, history is taught by looking at tennis in the Victorian era; in geography children analyse the scale and impact of staging a major sports event; and for physical education they look at how technology has changed the game.

Grass-roots knowledge

"Pupils of all ages will have heard of Wimbledon with its superstar players and stories of people queuing for days to watch matches, and are excited about visiting the grounds for what amounts to a personal tour," Ngaire Hewitt, the club's education officer, says. "Coming here is the first step to engaging their interest."

Hewitt, a former teacher, specialises in leveraging the lure of tennis into workshops that meet the needs of the curriculum and exams. "Talking to teachers about what will suit the learning styles of their pupils and whether workshops need adapting to produce the best possible learning experience is important," she explains.

One of her innovations has been to use staff throughout the club for the lessons she devises.

Take, for example, the head groundsman. He knows the secrets behind perfect grass courts - useful in teaching science. And physiotherapists are experts on fitness - good for physical education or biology. Then there is the club's museum, where staff are primed with facts about tennis history. Even business managers take part in the programme, revealing how the tournament is marketed.

When TES visits, it is in the company of a group of 12- to 16-year-olds and their three teachers from Swinton Community School near Rotherham in South Yorkshire. The students are part of the school's "gifted and talented" physical education group. Many compete in sport at county level and above, and all are aiming to take exams in the subject.

The focus of the visit is a three-hour workshop on "Tennis and Technology", along with a guided tour of Centre Court and the club's museum. The workshop is delivered by Ben Swann, who uses his skills as a former actor and knowledge gained as a Wimbledon tour guide to demonstrate how factors including the changing design of tennis rackets and the clothes worn by players have shaped the modern game.

Raising a racket

"I describe how the evolution of rackets from wood to graphite (carbon fibre) frames and using different types of strings changed how hard tennis balls could be hit - letting pupils handle the oldest to the newest rackets to feel for themselves the differences," Swann explains after the session.

"There is a thrill in holding a racket believed to have been used by William Renshaw, a seven-time Wimbledon singles winner in the 1880s, and comparing it with the rackets used by today's tennis champions, which helps the impact of the game's evolving technology to stick in the mind," he adds.

Fashion and social history make an appearance, too. The changes in clothes worn to play the game are used to illustrate how cultural trends have evolved since Victorian times, with interactivity again key to the teaching. Volunteer students are dressed in custom-made replicas of the long-sleeved woollen shirt and full-length trousers worn by Renshaw and the costume worn by the first ladies' singles champion, Maud Watson, in 1884, which consisted of a full-length skirt, whalebone corset and straw boater.

"It felt a bit uncomfortable, with the woollen material a bit itchy, but (it was) good fun to wear," Curtis Horbury, 12, says of Renshaw's outfit. For Marie Moakes, 13, "it was amazing a woman could play at all - the corset must have hurt as it was so tight".

Victorian-era men wore the same clothes as for cricket. For women, it was considered unladylike to display bare flesh - or even to take part in energetic sports - so no concessions to free movement were made in their outfits. Social history in action.

Teacher Laura Barratt explains that she chose the visit because of the opportunity it provides for the group to "learn about development in sport and be involved in practical aspects by dressing up", along with "the tour of the stadium allowing pupils to relate to what they see on TV and to see the facilities that elite players use".

Meanwhile, another group, this time consisting of 37 girls aged 10-11 from Streatham and Clapham High School in South London, is being shown around by Hewitt. They are making use of census returns, photographs, paintings and maps, along with more dressing up in tennis costumes of the 1880s and 1890s, to examine "Victorian sport and Wimbledon". Contemporary sources reveal the origins of the Wimbledon tournament and the thoughts of people living and working in the area around it.

The girls are steered into a room used for post-match interviews with the likes of Murray, Roger Federer and Serena Williams, prompting one of their number, Frankie Rushton-Smith, to whisper to a friend: "I feel really special."

And if she feels special weeks before the buzz of the Wimbledon tournament takes over, just imagine the excitement of students following in her footsteps if only Murray can rise to one of the biggest challenges in British sport and take the title. The booking line of the club's education department would presumably ring off the hook.

For more information, see bit.lyWimbledon2013


- This lesson plan introduces pupils to the basics of tennis.


- Students practise their forehand and backhand strokes in these activities.


- These work cards help children to learn and practise their shots.


- Develop students' skills with this illustrated lesson plan.


- Read about the players and track their results on the official Wimbledon website.



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