How is a giant cuddly dog called Sneaker getting young children to exercise? He's the hugely popular mascot of the award-winning Kids In Condition club and a perfect vehicle for relaying good health messages to its 5,000-plus members. Judy Mackie findsout more
It may seem ironic that a children's health and fitness initiative which steers clear of competitiveness should get in the ring with 143 other health projects to compete for a UK award, but for those involved in Kids In Condition, a Grampian-wide interactive health club for young children, the opportunity to spread its positive message was just too good to miss.
Behind KIC is a "cast of thousands": Health Promotions (an arm of Grampian Health Board), Grampian Heart Campaign, three local authorities, schools, communities, voluntary groups, the business community and the children themselves. And the award, which they won, is from the Health Service Journal for "best collaborative working".
KIC was launched in 1996 as a pilot project to encourage children to participate in enjoyable physical activity from an early age. In an Adult Lifestyle survey that year, only 19 per cent of adult males and 12 per cent of adult females in Grampian took the recommended level of 20 minutes' moderate exercise most days of the week. This provided evidence of the real need to promote fitness in a fun, non-competitive way in order to form good long-term habits.
Sponsored in part by Reebok and Shell UK, and targeting only the region's designated deprived areas, the pilot club quickly proved popular. Its lighthearted inclusive approach, with appearances by the "cool dude" doggy mascot "Sneaker", a range of membership goodies and associated social events, including discos, struck a chord with children. Evaluation soon revealed that 75 per cent of participants had increased their general levels of physical activity since joining.
Two years on, KIC has a membership of 5,500 and is thriving. Feedback from schools and other participating organisations has been highly encouraging. As an enhancement to the curriculum's formal physical education programme, it enables all primary school children, irrespective of ability, to join in its activities, providing a boost to self-esteem as well as tofitness levels.
Its objectives have also broadened since its launch. Now managed under the umbrella of Grampian Heart Campaign and incorporating the popular Health Promotions Smokebusters Club, it promotes not just physical activity but also "good heart health", good nutrition, no smoking and oral health. Split into KIC Sneakers and KIC Smokebusters, the club tailors its messages to suit particular age groups, and to complement teaching on health.
It operates on an incentive-based system, with participants collecting Sneaker paw-print stickers for their record card each time they take part in a KIC activity. Certificates are awarded for a complete set.
Collaboration is the key to the club's success. As health promotion co-ordinator, Stephanie Allison provides the link between Aberdeen City Council and Health Promotions, and a point of contact for Aberdeenshire and Moray councils.
Her role also gives her access to the Grampian Heart Campaign and to health promoters working with communities, other health professionals, volunteer groups and the business sector. As a result, a broad-based, streamlined approach is being developed, enabling the club to reinforce its messages far beyond the school gates.
"In Moray, for example, thanks to the support of the council's department of leisure and recreation, children can take their KIC record card to their local swimming pool, where they'll receive a sticker to show they've had a swim," says Stephanie Allison. Swimming pools throughout Grampian also play host to KIC's popular aqua discos, at which a soggy lifesize Sneaker always makes a splash.
Another key to the club's success is flexibility. It can be run either as an after-school club, or during the school day. Initially, the sessions, 30 to 45 minutes long, depending on the age of participants, are led by trained KIC activity leaders, but teachers who are interested areencouraged to learn the ropes, so that they can organise their own sessions. The club is also tailored to suit voluntary and community groups and to be run outdoors or indoors. Accompanying workshops can be organised to tackle wider health issues.
Between now and 2000, the club plans to visit every primary school in the region with the aim of recruiting 15,000 more members. A number of new KIC activity leaders are being appointed, funded, like the rest of the initiative, by a raft of grants, sponsorship and fund-raising activities facilitated by Grampian Heart Campaign.
The Heart Campaign's executive manager, Fiona O'Brien, says: "We see KIC as playing an important role in preventing the children of today becoming the coronary heart disease patients of tomorrow. Collaboration is central to our fund-raising successes. Our recent golf-a-thon, involving representatives from local education departments and businesses, as well as individual volunteers, raised pound;60,000 to support the club, particularly in the identified areas of deprivation."
One of the latest sponsorship opportunities is KIC's adopt-a-school initiative, which encourages businesses to fund the membership of a local primary school. Chevron UK, for example, has "adopted" Middlefield Primary School in Aberdeen, enabling every child to participate in the club free of charge (membership is normally pound;2 each).
"Collaboration has worked well in the north-east and is continuing to attract further interest and new partners," says Stephanie Allison. "The exciting thing about it, is that it's a generic model, which could easily be adapted by other areas."
'COOL DUDE' DROPS IN ON PARACHUTE GAME
Silence falls in the school gym as the door slowly opens. Thirty pairs of eyes watch with excitement as the assistant headteacher leads in a giant cuddly dog.
"Sneaker!" The screams say it all. The cheeky canine lumbers his way into the centre of the room and is swamped by the children eager to give him a pat. The floppy-eared mascot of Kids In Condition doesn't make an appearance at every KIC session at Abbotswell Primary School, Aberdeen. Marketing assistant Emma Scott, who dons the doggy costume to tour schools, community clubs and special KIC discos, is thankful for that - visiting every KIC centre each time would be physically impossible.
Sneaker, like the KIC magazine and many of the club's activities, is the creation of KIC's own members - a competition was held to find the most suitable mascot. He is as switched-on as Snoopy and a marvellous vehicle for relaying health messages to his young followers. For example, Sneaker believes exercise is cool, that healthy eating is in, and that going to the dentist is child's play.
Today, he's typically at the centre of things, sitting in the middle of a giant multi-coloured parachute as part of a wrapping-up and unwinding game. The parachute, says Abbotswell's assistant head, Barbara Gray, has more than proved its worth and is the focus for at least a dozen different activities in which every child can participate and - almost without realising it - get a good deal of physical exercise.
The school's relationship with KIC began last spring, as part of its annual health week. "We received a lot of support from the club, which arranged activity sessions and workshops," says Barbara Gray. "These were so popular and fitted in so well with our ethos as a health-promoting school that we decided to become more involved. All our children are now members and some of our staff are planning to train as session leaders.
"KIC fits in well with PE and has the added bonus that every child can take part, regardless of ability. It promotes the idea that physical exercise is fun, and the children are responding very well to that."
Now fully engaged in a game of Arctic Explorers - which involves them "skiing", "snowboarding", "canoeing", walking like penguins and running away from a scary polar bear (KIC co-ordinator Michael Connon) - the exhilarated Primary 5 class are clearly enjoying themselves.
As the 45-minute session draws to a close, Sneaker slips away, exhausted but happy - just like his young human pals.
Further information about Kids In Condition, from 01224 589901