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What's all the hoopla about?

They may be pre-schoolers, but do not underestimate their sporting ability. Henry Hepburn reports on the Active Start project.

Nursery pupils in Clackmannanshire are defying expectations for their age-group by excelling at basketball, golf and even orienteering.

The authority's Active Start programme gets children involved in miniature versions of several sports, with results described by nursery heads as "absolutely superb" and "fantastic".

Those behind the programme say it offers proof that the ability of pre-school children is constantly underestimated.

But it has not been unanimously embraced, as some influential figures in education believe pre-school children should be introduced to specific sports.

Active Start's origins were in the late 1990s, when HMIE reports criticised the standard of physical activity in some Clackmannanshire nurseries. At the same time, there were concerns about the physical ability of children entering local primary schools.

The programme began in 2000 and evolved into a form described as "unique" by Alison Mackie, Clackmannanshire's Active Schools lead co-ordinator.

Each nursery is entitled to one-and-a-half hours per week of Active Start PE for every one of its teachers; this is typically delivered in 30-minute sessions.

These can comprise specially adapted versions of orienteering, golf, football, dance, basketball, racquets or athletics, meaning plastic golf clubs and basketball hoops little more than waist-high to an adult. There are also some exercises not overtly associated with specific sports.

Sessions are taken by one of three Active Start officers, who are overseen by a manager; nursery staff can be trained to take the reins themselves and a handful of specialist coaches are also called on. Nurseries also have access to the Active Start library, a well-stocked bank of colourful equipment for physical activities.

The sessions come at no cost to nurseries - teachers' agreement funding is used - but they often "buy in" more Active Start activities; for these sessions they can choose from the standard list of sports, but also rugby, cricket, yoga, swimming and gymnastics.

The use of specific sports goes against the ethos of Basic Moves, a popular pre-school exercise programme, developed by Edinburgh University, which advises that children should try physical skills such as catching and jumping outwith the constraints of a specific sport's rules.

But Miss Mackie argues that introducing pre-school children to sports actually brings added richness to their learning. They might learn about number sequences through dance, the fair play and etiquette of golf, or the different types of players in a team and how they must work together.

There were concerns among nursery staff about what pre-school children would be capable of - Miss Mackie at times wondered herself if some activities would be too advanced - but these have also been confounded.

"We don't ever apologise that it looks like a sports-specific programme," Miss Mackie said. "Nurseries have embraced orienteering - that's the most amazing programme we've seen develop. They've got their own courses set up and the kids are drawing their own maps.

"The most common feedback is that we constantly underestimate what we can deliver to three-, four- and five-year-olds - it still amazes us just what they are able to do."

Teachers report improvements in concentration and self-esteem.

In a new Active Start DVD, several line up to praise the programme. They include Miranda Miller, former headteacher at Clackmannnan Nursery, who said Active Start had been "absolutely fantastic" and that "children don't get bored".

The positive impact of Active Start has been noticed outside the council's 14 nurseries, with activities being bought in by private nurseries, playgroups and mother and toddler groups, while other authorities are expressing an interest and North Ayrshire Council has asked for extensive training.

The impact is even more impressive, given that Clackmannanshire's nurseries do not have enviable spaces for physical activities - some sessions have taken place in cloakrooms.

Active Start staff now want to add clout to the positive anecdotal evidence by means of formal evaluation, a process that is already underway.

Miss Mackie spoke about Active Start at the recent National Physical Education Conference in Stirling.

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