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Headmaster's Blog: The inspirational power of exercise

Headmaster's Blog: The inspirational power of exercise

Guest blog by Mr Ian Wright, Head of Pocklington Prep School

After years of handing out medals and trophies to pupils for their sporting achievements, I was surprised and delighted to receive one of my own in a recent assembly, recognising my participation in a cycle race.

Our Head of Sport, Russ Parker, heard about my 125km cycle challenge over the North York Moors and turned the tables on me - and stepping forward to receive my medal in front of the school made me very proud indeed.

I only took up cycling quite recently and public recognition and the competition side of it were the last among my reasons for doing so; I wanted some fresh air and a change of perspective after a day at school. My original ambition was to get fit enough to cycle the 11km round route to a country coffee shop and back. By the time I managed it, I was hooked.

I also feel immeasurably better since taking up cycling, not only in terms of fitness but also because my improved sense of wellbeing makes it easier to deal with any challenges the day presents.

I see the same benefits of exercise in our children at school every day. The most obvious one, which parents will recognise, is the improvement in children’s outlook and behaviour when they’ve been able to run around outdoors to shake off excess energy and any tensions or anxieties.

A recent study found today’s children are the first generation in 70 years to be less fit than their parents, because of a shift from active play outdoors to indoor screen-based activities. This comes amid overwhelming evidence that exercise not only helps us become physically fitter, but helps children’s social and emotional development, too.

Researchers have found evidence strongly linking physically active children with improved self- esteem, confidence, attention span and even academic achievements.

Other obvious benefits are the endurance derived from aerobic exercise, the strength that comes from stronger muscles and bones, the increased flexibility – and the self-control, discipline and associated skills which come with learning to play a sport.

Then there’s the team-building and resilience which participation in sport brings. Children learn how to organise themselves and other members of the team, how to take instruction, and how to win and lose gracefully.

These are all great life skills which will serve them well throughout their school days as well as in the world of work. Plus, becoming used to exercise at school establishes healthy habits which last a lifetime.

So when I see stories about schools cutting PE and games from their curriculum, especially to concentrate on public exams, I regret the lasting impact that will have on the children involved. Not least during the pressure of exam time, when children of all ages would particularly benefit from the opportunity to let off steam.

We don’t take SATs at Pocklington Prep, and our PE and games programme remains constant throughout the year. Every child joins in regular physical activity, from Pre-School to Year 6, as part of the curriculum and through many optional co-curricular activities on offer.  We also work outdoors regularly, because as well as bringing topics to life, it improves our sense of wellbeing.

Pre-School children learn through active play every day, and from Reception to Year 2, children have one hour weekly lessons in swimming, PE and games. In Years 3 -6, an extra two hours games is added, taking it to five hours in total. Most children also enjoy at least one co-curricular sporting activity at lunchtimes or after school.

The co-curricular list includes dance, judo, cheerleading and running, alongside clubs offering extra practise in curricular sports like football, hockey, rugby, netball, swimming and athletics. I never cease to be impressed by pupils who turn out with head torches to complete cross country training during the winter months!

Children derive lifelong benefit from overcoming the challenge of learning to play a sport, be it on an individual level or as part of a team. It’s wonderful to see their confidence soar as they learn a skill, and again if they gain recognition by being picked for a team. We make sure every child has the chance to represent Pocklington Prep at some level in sport.

Sport teaches us as much about our limitations as our strengths, which is another life lesson worth learning. It also teaches us that perseverance and determination pay off: the day before I completed my 125km cycle challenge, I fell off my bike, badly grazing my knee. I didn’t perform as well as a result (any excuse, I know!) – but that didn’t matter one jot once I’d crossed the finishing line. I couldn’t have felt more elated if I’d won the Tour de Yorkshire!

Sport and exercise, like the best learning, teach us the rewards of challenging ourselves to push beyond our comfort zone. It also teaches children good life skills and habits which will serve them well. I will always promote physical activity and sport as part of the curriculum because, quite simply, they inspire for life.