It’s not just the prompt that is #MHAW16 that makes me think of the link between sport and wellbeing. At the risk of sounding like some faker or fanatic, I never really divert from that #caseforsport thing.
In my daily life I’m completely in the business of getting kids moving and smiling. My head continually swims with responses to sport – and for those in the London Borough of Brent, nope I’m not necessarily talking competitive sport here. I’m talking activity. I’m talking freedom, movement – the finding of skills, the building of rhythms and confidences. For me the brilliance of games are an obvious and essential way in to both social and academic skills as well as a rich but direct route to joy and achievement.
Let’s put something daft and challenging out there. I believe that we could radically improve the health, wellbeing and academic development of children if we put the much-vaunted Physical Literacy Framework right at the centre of Primary School life. Or more exactly – because I don’t want to get bogged down in This Year’s Ideological Re-structure – if we expanded our understanding of the role of physical education.
Decent coaches and/or teachers know PE can be used broadly (but phenomenally successfully) to gather unwilling or disaffected or ‘non-academic’ children in to the curriculum, as well as boosting levels of engagement and achievement in bright kids. It provides a way in – even with those who initially lack co-ordination.
Good coaches re-calibrate the challenge of the game and feed encouragement into the faces of children. They hear them and guide them and praise them towards some tiny- gargantuan triumph… like making a catch or swatting a ball off a tee crisply, with a deeply satisfying clump. In these moments lives can (honestly) be changed.
If I tell you I know that during every session I run something pret-ty damn profound happens that isn’t about me. It’s about the fact of that transformation through the game. A boy or girl *getting it*.
Maybe that getting it is the execution of a single (or probably more likely) a compound skill; or maybe it’s the moment when a lifetime of healthy activity kickstarts, because the child felt something magic… and they were seen… and they were heard; their skill or value was noted in the handbook of the world; their mark – maybe so often ignored, erased or simply un-made – was made, recognised, appreciated.
These are revelatory moments and they can and should herald wonderful leaps forward.
Children can and often are welcomed in to curriculum work, to academic development via progress in games. (And yes, I am placing the games before the Proper School Work here. If we worked this way round more often rather than bundled on into SATS or some other ‘measurement’ then we might develop more confident, capable and sophisticated young thinkers. And that’s what we want, right?)
Through games children can learn co-operation, awareness, that sense of place – both in terms of belonging and in terms of hierarchy. Whilst the former tends to be powerfully helpful, the latter may turn out a real-world scramble that often needs supporting but must be negotiated.
Beyond the ‘obvious’ skill development comes the progress re- a child’s ability to make intelligent (tactical) decisions. Sport implies and needs the hot-wiring of judgements – often adrenalin-fuelled, often exhilirating. Such moments are surely growth spurts for the mind?
All this over and above the mere movement; the mere propping up of the universe and the NHS *because we got fittish kids*. PE dictates an increasingly alarmingly sedentary generation move something other than their texting or snapchatting fingers.
So mentally and physically we win and we win. I say we celebrate that and prioritise that by making it genuinely central to Primary Education (as opposed to merely re-branding it Physical Literacy and continuing that tendency to significantly underachieve.)
I hear the arguments from those who had a ‘bad experience’ of PE at school and who fear that insensitive blokes with scary beards or gruff manners might revisit all that in the playgrounds of their own children. But coaches or PE Teachers are way better than this now. Things are simply waaay more sophisticated and child-centred.
Coaches bring new levels of understanding and yes sensitivity to games these days. The kids who ‘would never get picked’ are involved now – they share in the activity. Far from being by-passed or damaged, children are more often found/released/directed.
Personally, after a couple of sessions I frequently invite children to build their own game – having prepared the ground with questions about fairness, structure, the sharing of the bat. It’s massively challenging.
There’s no hiding from deepish, philosophical issues because we’ve established that abstracted groundrule that ‘we’re looking for a way to make this work’. We’ve dug into the difficulties about the primeval urge to be the batter; we’ve asked ourselves what a good number might be for the bowler to bowl and those two(!) batters to bat. We’ve considered the shape of things; grappled with social, existential, practical stuff – stuff about time and number and patience and feeling and nerve. We’ve put the Education into the Physical.
Then we go play. And the children choose and negotiate and muscle through that barrier towards sharing.
I don’t think I’m overplaying the levels of mental/academic consideration we’re looking towards here. This is meant to support engagement on a zillion levels but it may (on a purely intellectual stratum) be a separate phenomenon to wellbeing. So let’s briefly look at that.
Young humans generally love to move – despite the aforementioned epidemic in sedentary behaviour – I maintain they/we are stimulated by and enjoy movement. Not because some coach or teacher tells us that games are good or important or healthy but because (when we are guided or supported well) something positive floods through our bodies.
That may be a profoundly individual sensation or it may be something communally-felt. There may be a process that folks in labs could unpick for us: it may be adrenalin/endorphins or some other biological/chemical surge that frankly I am hugely underinformed about. I’m not that interested in the mechanics – that’s not real to me.
What is real is the smiling and the running and the delight. The development. The newness and achievement and growth. Children (in this case) freed and uplifted or unshackled because someone got them moving. That’s real – even if it may not be measured.
#MHAW16 may have pointed some of us towards greater awareness of issues. I applaud that. I also get that my subject matter here typically rests in the non-acute area of interventions into wellbeing. However, as a positive bloke I’m happy to bundle through the politesse around all this and daub a simple, positive message: about sport being a way in.
I have seen Physical Education or Activity support those feeling or struggling with isolation, non-engagement, misunderstanding, chronic lack of confidence, furious anger. I have watched as ‘difficult kids’ are seduced into the struggle or the joyful search; as their minds flash with genius and pain and learning. I have seen teeny, gargantuan worlds light up – often.