Sport: Health and Well-being of Children and Young People — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:42 pm on 9th December 2010.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Benjamin Baroness Benjamin Liberal Democrat 12:42 pm, 9th December 2010

My Lords, I am honoured to be taking part in this important debate, as it concentrates on two issues close to my heart: children and sport. Both, if nurtured, will bring joy and happiness to the world. Many people in our society realise that world-class athletes would never have discovered their talents if they had not been introduced to sport at an early age, especially by sports specialists. As sports men and women become younger and younger and achieve international success, the age at which children begin participating in sport has to begin as early as possible if we are to remain world-class competitors.

This is happening in some parts of our society, but not for all children and young people. Not a day goes by without a mention of the dangers of childhood obesity, as already mentioned by noble Lords on all sides of the House, and of the long-term effects of the lack of exercise on the nation's health, with the resulting impact on healthcare resources. There are other benefits, apart from the benefits to the health and well-being of the nation as a result of sporting participation. For some, sport is an ideal way of harnessing the energy which they may otherwise use less productively, as it brings discipline into their unstructured lives. For children and young people, sport is without doubt a pathway to confidence and self-belief. It gives them a chance to excel and to achieve success. For many of them, participation in sport can open up new horizons and lead to personal development beyond their wildest dreams.

One of our greatest Olympians, Sir Steve Redgrave, often relates the story of how he got into rowing through the enthusiasm of the head of English at his comprehensive school. His wife Ann got into the sport of rowing through Charing Cross medical school where she was chosen because she was tall. She was sitting in the canteen and they picked her. Those are two chance encounters that have had a tremendous impact on both Ann and Steve but which also benefited the entire nation. However, we cannot leave to chance the involvement of children in sport, and the issue is getting the ones not normally enthused or excited by sporting activity to get active.

It remains a fact that many children, for a variety of physical, social and cultural reasons, are unable to participate in sporting activities, and we must make extra efforts in these areas to find ways of giving them the obvious physical and psychological benefits of sport. For example, the inclusion of Muslim girls in physical education has to be sensitive to the needs of the diverse Muslim population. A school in the West Midlands realised that it had to encourage Muslim parents to allow their daughters to take part in PE because many of them were nervous or had reservations about their daughters participating, especially after school. So the school decided to change its PE curriculum to reflect the needs and concerns of parents and their children and offered opportunities to explore cultural diversity, community participation and well-being.

To raise parents' awareness of the importance of PE and school sport, a health and fitness club was set up for mothers during the school day and, later on, children were invited to join them. At the same time parents were consulted on changes to the PE curriculum, highlighting the emphasis on developing learners' skills in communication, listening, problem solving, co-operation and teamwork through PE. Almost all the girls now attend PE lessons regularly, and many also participate in out-of-hours clubs, summer schools and family fun days. By welcoming the challenge of providing PE and school sport that is appropriate for the school's cultural context, it has succeeded in achieving marked improvements in learners' motivation, commitment and enjoyment.

In the past the PE curriculum was prescriptive and weighted towards games activities, but now many schools have had a radical rethink of their curriculum. Pupils now experience a range of activities such as strategies and tactics, creative movement and health, fitness and well-being. The aim is to give children and young people the expertise, knowledge and skills to enable them to make informed decisions in their lives. Teachers have noticed the impact that this has had because students are now learning skills and strategies that help them to achieve in all subjects. They tackle new tasks with greater confidence and they feel empowered. That has been proven over and over again.

We all know that team sports can help children and young people to develop a range of skills as they have to work independently as well as being good team players, which can help them to develop excellent leadership skills when organising and motivating others. It also helps them to develop physical competence and performance, to outwit opponents when competing. It goes without saying that sporting activities and exercises help children and young people to improve and strengthen their muscles, develop a deeper understanding of the physiological effects of exercising and develop confidence in order to communicate more effectively, giving them a great sense of achievement.

On a personal note, at school I always loved sporting activities that helped me to excel in others areas of my life. As I took my love for sporting activities into my adult life, which includes running marathons, I have gained huge health benefits by keeping a steady weight and low cholesterol levels, and reducing the risk of high blood pressure and the likelihood of having a stroke, as well as developing skills of endurance and perseverance. This proves to me that childhood lasts a lifetime. What we expose our children to today will stay with them for ever, and that includes a healthy sporting lifestyle, supplied with passion and understanding of their needs and abilities.

I ask my noble friend the Minister what measures are being put in place to ensure today's children will experience the joy and health benefits of sporting activities which they can take with them into adulthood.