As a keen runner and new parent, James Edgar looks for tips on how to encourage children to be active.
My run the other day was rather different to any I have done in the previous 25 years; it was the first time that I was running with my daughter. I have been waiting eagerly for her to reach six months old, as around that age is when a baby is old enough to hold their own weight. Courtesy of much-loved Serpie couple Jol and Kiera Attwool, who have recently emigrated to Australia with their kids, we have a rather fine running buggy for me to pop Grace in and hit the roads.
Our first run is a gentle trot round Queen’s Park and she seems to enjoy it. I can’t wait to do our first buggy parkrun and as I ran, my thoughts turn to what parents can do to get kids active as they grow up. I decided to ask a few parents and it seemed natural to ask my dad first.
His first point was how much kids are likely to follow in their parent’s footsteps, remembering what it was like when I and my brother, David, were young: “You were born into a family where from the start I was a runner, running nearly every day and entering races throughout the year. As a 3-year old David used to mimic the stretching exercises that I did before every training run.”
“The whole family would come to races to support me. The whole environment of a race was fun: loudspeakers, colourful running gear, medals and ‘Chariots of Fire’. In hindsight it would probably have been difficult for the two of you not to have become interested in running!”
This theme of setting the right example came up from Natalie Kolodziej, an ex-Serpie women’s cross country captain, who is now back in her home country of Australia with fellow ex-Serpie Wes Harrison and their two kids, Felicity (three) and recently born baby Theodore. She says, “If the kids see us as being active then they are more likely to grow up with it as part of their lifestyle and will know no different. Wes takes Felicity to parkrun every week, then afterwards they go to the park and she has a bit of a run around.”
My dad did the 1980’s equivalent, and suggests an approach based on providing opportunity but not pushing particular activities. “It’s important not to apply pressure to succeed, just help, and value and accept your child’s choice of activity even if it wouldn’t have been yours.”
I also spoke to John Hudspith who brought up three active kids (Ali, Seb and Nat) and very much agrees, “Just give them lots of opportunity and exposure to different sports and don’t inflict any particular activity on them. Let them find what they enjoy and are good at, as that is what they are likely to stick with in the long run.”
It is an amusing quirk of this approach that it ended up being my maths teacher in secondary school who suggested I join a running club, particularly because it was my dad’s own running club, Verlea (now Herts Phoenix and Garden City Runners). My dad explains why he had not suggested it: “I believe in a stand-off approach of not trying to force children to do any particular activity but merely providing them with the necessary opportunities to enable them to make their own choices.”
This worked rather well, within a year I had done my first Met League cross country race and 10k.
And it worked in a different way on my brother who caught the bug for hill-walking; another of my dad’s interests. He has climbed all 214 Lake District peaks, over 100 Munros and visited Everest Base Camp.
My dad gives wise advice to start early, as convincing a teenager is not easy. That’s exactly what John Hudspith did. “My kids were transported on a child bike seat around the locality from an early age. I soon recognised that it was far better to get them riding a bike than use a buggy, so as rapidly as possible they went from buggy to trike to bike with stabilisers and then bike. I think all three were riding bikes well before the age of four, me running alongside and holding them if necessary.”
He never pushed them into running, saying that their first real motivation was at age nine when they were enlisted into the school cross country team. They each did parkrun on Wimbledon Common as part of their prep and then decided themselves to carry on from there. As they were keen to continue, they joined SRC and did the Handicap each month. “Seeing Seb and Nat complete the Handicap was special, although it got a bit embarrassing once they started to win!”
There was also a strong similarity in advice about trying a range of physical activity. My dad remembers the range of activities we were involved in at Scouts was wide: camping, sailing, bulldog (a game so physical I believe it is mostly banned at Scouts these days), football and walking as examples. An organisation like the Scouts provides valuable opportunities for each individual to find those activities that appeal to them.
John’s children all went different directions, as well as running. Seb was good at football and was asked to join Chelsea academy, Nat discovered climbing and competed at the national championships and daughter Ali (who is a PE teacher) discovered rowing recently and John got to see her row at the Henley Women’s Regatta. He says that the “biggest challenge is in letting go, encouraging them but letting them do what they want to”.
And Natalie is taking advantage of the fact that Felicity is now at an age where they can start getting her into some more formal activities in Oz, including Kindergym, ballet, swimming and, at the end of this year, Tiny Tots, which is an introduction to Little Athletics. “Our hope is that she and Theodore grow up with exercise as a normal part of their lifestyle and therefore stay fit and healthy. Plus it also teaches them good sportsmanship, teamwork and respect for others.”
The lessons seem pretty clear for us with our daughter: lead by example, introduce her to a range of activities, support her interests but don’t push particular activities, including running, on to her. Paradoxically, stepping back seems to be a good way to increase the chance that she gets in to running anyway, but if not then everything from football to ballet to rowing could be in her future. However, before all that: our first parkrun is coming up soon.
James Edgar has been a Serpie for over a decade and is currently learning how to fit running around a new baby.