Putting the “Fun” back in
This question seems to come up every year or so, and in most countries. Are there answers? Probably many – perhaps too many – and no broad agreement, but there is one element we can focus on: making sport fun. Isn’t this obvious? Not if you see the effort that has gone into sending out that message. The Australian Bureau of Statistics researched participation in 2009*. At first sight, numbers looked encouraging for participation, but numbers for non-participation were not so rosy: outside school hours 37% did not participate outside school hours – and girls made up 44% of these. A government commission reported in 2018 (https://www.clearinghouseforsport.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0012/796827/AusPlay_focus_Children_Participation.pdf ), using information from parents/guardians. Figures had improved, but not the gender imbalance.
Sportaus – the Australian Sports Commission – has raised this issue. Its website (https://www.sportaus.gov.au/youth_participation/engagement_strategies) sets out a very readable, structured program for sports delivery, those who deliver it (coaches or trainers), program designers, and what a program should look like (‘features’). Some things relevant to this blog’s focus immediately stand out:
- Allow youth to nominate and participate with friends.
- Use a fun game-based format, not drills.
- Allow youth to play and choose music for fun or as a reward.
The first point is about giving back to children the choices they can make about who to play with – which is a natural instinct for children: we enjoy company we choose for ourselves. For a program, which is more structured, the ‘format’ should be game-based – and fun. Rewards, too, are also about fun.
Not surprisingly there is academic work on fun (Visek, A.J. (et al.) (2013) and, like writing about comedy, it can be hard to get a message about fun across in a convincing way. But a useful insight from such work, using children’s own responses, is that “Children cite ‘fun’ as the primary reason for participation in organized sport and its absence as the number-one reason for youth sport attrition”.
If you have watched this summer in the Australian Open tennis competition, you will have seen an Australian young woman who finally did not win, and exited graciously, and an American young woman who did win, and celebrated – rightly. The media took care to search out footage of their early days as tennis players or in other sports. It was striking to see how, at an early age, sport was so attractive to them – not yet because they were winners, though they were certainly being encouraged to develop a talent. It was likely they thoroughly enjoyed themselves, even when the tennis racquets were almost as big as they were.
We continue to hear a great deal about how difficult it is to engage, and keep engaged, children in sport. Why should this be when we have such good role models out there? Of course we cannot all be champions. Are those who show talent as children driven by the desire to win, or even encouraged (or pushed) by ambitious parents living their own lives through their children’s successes? What about children who do not have any particular talent – beyond a typical interest in playing at something? Are we saying about sport the kinds of things we may see in academic work – parents pushing their offspring to perform through intensive practice?
If we need a starting point as parents, we could do worse than look carefully at the programs our children engage in, what happens in them, how they are delivered. We could start by asking: is what my kids are doing fun for them? If it isn’t why should I expect them to go on doing it, especially when other attractions emerge as they grow up? If I want them to participate, grow healthy, and above all enjoy physical exercise, how can I put in some fun? This needs us to stand back and look at what is happening, what we are doing, perhaps getting some advice, then acting on it. Put the fun back in and stand back.
For those who want to more closely explore this subject, check out the links below
Visek, A.J. (et al.) (2013) The fun integration theory: Towards sustaining children and adolescents sport participation, Journal of Physical Activity and Health 12 (3), pp.424-433. This is pursued in https://www.scholastic.com/parents/family-life/parent-child/secret-to-keeping-kids-sports.html