Why sport is critical for girls’ future prospects

Primary school PE is key to laying the foundations for a healthy lifestyle in adulthood, says headteacher Alex Hems

Why sport is critical for girls’ future prospects'

The children running around in the school playground today are the adult citizens of the future, so it’s vital we lay the foundations for a healthy lifestyle in the classroom. If we get this right in the early years, we can help them foster healthy habits that will serve them well throughout their lives.

Regular exercise engenders physical and mental resilience that can boost self-esteem and improve mental health – compelling reasons for encouraging children to get active.

Schools are in a unique position to help young people find real pleasure in sport and physical activity that they can carry into adulthood. Sadly, the majority will fail to find a sport they love at school and this is especially true of girls.

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Around 1.5 million fewer women than men take part in sport at least once a week, according to 2016 research by Women in Sport. As this gap tends to appear in children as young as eight, we must tackle this issue during primary education.

Team sports such as hockey and netball bring about manifold benefits for pupils, including companionship, communication skills and mutual respect, so it’s key that we promote participation. As girls are often more reluctant to join in, they need extra support.

Our largely female PE staff understand the barriers girls can face in sports and work hard to make it easier for them to get into sport; sometimes all that’s needed is tailored communication.

Outdoor learning is another great way to mobilise children and get them up out of their chairs. And with fun activities such as den building and bug hunting, they usually don’t even realise it’s exercise.

With childhood obesity on the rise, it’s crucial to also promote the benefits of a healthy diet at school. If we are serious about enacting positive change, we must eradicate highly-processed salt- and sugar-laden meals from the school menu and focus instead on serving great-tasting nutritious meals. Salad bars offering a colourful array of healthy options are a great way to empower children to make better choices.

Schools hold unique power to positively impact their pupils’ wellbeing. From encouraging participation across the board and making sports more accessible for girls, to underlining the value of a healthy diet, we must maximise every opportunity to promote healthy living.

While the responsibility of ensuring these good habits are maintained at home lies with families, we hope that our pupils are so inspired by what they learn at school that they’ll happily take their healthy tips home with them.

Alex Hems is head of St George's School for Girls, in Edinburgh

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