This week is National School Sports Week. This is a chance to celebrate how important sport is for children. The week was first created in 2008 by the children’s charity, the Youth Sport Trust, and has run every year since.
In The Big Ask, the largest-ever survey of children, we heard how important physical and mental health was to children.
This week, offers a chance to look in more detail about what children had to say about sports, play and physical health.
What did children say overall about their physical health?
Almost all children aged 6 to 8 were happy with the places they could go to have fun (93%) and how much they could play (92%). For young people aged 9 to 17, most were happy with the choice of things to do in their local area although one fifth were unhappy – the second most selected concern.
About two-thirds of young children aged 6-8 believe that being healthy and active is important for their future lives. Although as children get older their belief seems to become less important, with a third of those aged 9 to 17 thought being healthy and active was important for their future.
The majority of children aged 9 to 17 were happy with their physical health (68%). Girls aged 9 to 17 were more likely to feel unhappy with their physical health than boys were (12% compared to 9% respectively) and were also less likely to think good physical health was important for their future (28% compared to 34% of boys). In contrast, girls are more likely to say that good mental health is important (57% compared to 48% of boys).
What did children say about sport and play?
Many children spoke about sports and their beneficial effects on physical and mental health. As one child said:
‘Not going outside enough. I was quite depressed at one point but when I started cycling and walking with my friends it really helped get me back down to earth’ – Boy, 14..
However, they also highlighted several barriers to taking up sport and playing with their friends.
Children commonly mentioned how many of their favourite clubs and places to play closed down during Covid and that lockdown resulted in them getting less exercise and not being able to see their friends. This is supported by Sport England’s findings that the proportion of children active in 2020-21 was 2.2% lower compared to pre-pandemic (2018-19) levels. This is equivalent to 94,000 fewer active children and young people post-pandemic. 
This was also supported by children’s testimonies in The Big Ask, where children spoke about the impact of lockdown on their physical health and activity. As the following children said:
‘Lockdown was the worst for people everywhere. That means you can’t go to gyms, swimming pools, training grounds etc. and this has been destroying their mental and physical health’ – Boy, 13.
‘Because of Covid people have stopped doing things they love such as sports and things after school. Some have become very sad or tired for no reason because they are fed up about the situation’ – Girl, 13.
‘I think Covid is affecting me a lot because they won’t find anything to do just go to school and stay home. I think the government guidelines affect children’s right to play and it makes feel lonely since lockdown has kept us do nothing’ – Boy, 10.
Countless girls highlighted the issue of gender expectations and sexism in sport as well as the stigma that comes with choosing a sport that goes against societal or parental expectations. Some also mentioned their struggles with body image issues and feeling self-conscious of their size as a barrier to doing more exercise. As we heard from the following children:
‘Even though times have changed boys still try to dominate girls defiantly with sports like football and rugby. I have loved sports like Irish dancing and horse riding since I was very small but even though they are seen as ‘‘girl’’ sports that does not mean I can’t play football with boys. Although I can never see myself as a professional football player it would be nice to be taken into account’ – Girl, 11.
‘I’m a very sporty person, but I’m also a bigger person than all the other people in my age group, and in school we have school teams, and the kit never fits. This may seem small but, I’m very self-conscious about my body already… but then adding on that I have to wear my own clothes or the year above kit… Now this has really affected me. It’s made me, not want to sign up to football teams or just teams in my school… it’s just a big setback for me’ – Girl, 13.
For some children, access to sport was difficult. This was either because of safety or affordability. This is a theme that emerged from the children quotes below:
‘As we grow up in a society of gangs its harder for people nowadays to get out their houses without having the fear of getting robbed or stabbed, even if it’s something like going to the park to play football’ – Boy, 16.
‘Girls (including myself) won’t wear certain clothes or cover up or won’t play sport or go for a jog because they don’t feel safe in the streets’ – Girl, 13.
‘The budget cuts closed youth centres and sporting clubs that help get people off the street’ – Boy, 16.
‘Not having the right or working equipment needed for lessons. It might also help if the equipment in the playgrounds were improved so kids could have more fun things to do’ – Girl, 11.
‘For disabled children it always comes down to money. Certain things can’t be supported due to funds, like activities/clubs etc’ – Boy, 12.
How can children’s access to sports and play in England be improved?
It is great to hear from children directly about how much they value sports, play and exercise in helping them get outside, see their friends, and boost their mental and physical health. Undoubtedly the pandemic limited children’s ability to play sport. Now there is an opportunity to place children’s access and enjoyment of sport at the centre of the recovery.
To help more young people to access exercise, play and sport, we made the following recommendations out of The Big Ask, some of which we are pleased to already see progress on. These recommendations were:
- A renewed focus on community youth services, including through the already committed funding from the Youth Investment Fund to effective youth services and updating the statutory duty on local authorities to ensure a minimum level of youth provision.
- A broader duty on public bodies to make their sports facilities, green spaces and indoor spaces available to charities and voluntary providers working with children at cost.
- Continued creation of safe public spaces for children, with an emphasis on local prioritisation of resources based on the feedback of children.
- A voluntary third session in the school day, for catch-up support and activities. Especially in disadvantaged areas, children need opportunities to catch up on missed social, sporting and cultural experiences.
- Increase the number of schools offering breakfast clubs – making sure no child goes hungry and supporting the whole family.
- Continue the Holiday Activities Fund– so the most disadvantaged children can access social and cultural enrichment during their holidays.
 Sport England, Active Lives Children and Young People Survey, December 2021, Link.