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Being active is about opportunity and fun

4th August 2021 by Kathryn Morley, Chief Executive, OnSide

To mark National Play Day, the annual day for play in the UK, OnSide CEO Kathryn Morley shares her thoughts on getting young people active through play.

I was interested to read last week that a cross-party group of MPs have called for the government to launch a nationwide communications campaign encouraging young people to do at least an hour of physical activity every day. The group also called for an incentive scheme to encourage young people to get active, in response to figures showing that just over half of children and young people achieved the minimum recommended level of 60 minutes of activity a day in 2020.

While promoting being active is certainly a positive thing I would question if lack of awareness is really the barrier we should be seeking to address if we are serious about getting our young people active? Much like the 5-A-Day campaign, I would argue that most young people know that being active is good! Perhaps a bigger challenge is how we can give all young people  accessible, fun and affordable opportunities to be active, within their local community, in a way that works for them.

In the 13 years that we have been developing a network of Youth Zones that support 50,000 young people to live happier, healthier lives we have learnt a lot about how to support young people to get moving. Of course there is no silver bullet to what is a complex societal challenge but here are five of the lessons we’ve learnt.

  1. There needs to be variety.

At each session in a Youth Zone, young people can try their hand at over 20 activities from climbing to dance and roller skating to boxing to basketball, each led by skilled staff in a supportive and fun environment. We’ve found that by offering a mix of more traditional sports with up-and-coming new sports and  movement based games and activities, members get involved as they have the choice to do the things that interest them, have fun and get active through play, without even realising that they are.

  1. It’s in the design.

It goes beyond the activities. Each Youth Zone has an open play design that removes barriers and invites members to explore, to see what’s happening, and to have a go. That’s why the welcoming open plan recreational area, where every young person enters and spends time in at some point every visit, is the heart of the Youth Zone, with all other activity rooms built around this central place. Youth Zones are also kitted out with brand new equipment and furnishings of the highest quality, bright welcoming décor and fully stocked gyms, ensuring they are places that young people want to spend their time and members are not held back by a lack of equipment or kit.

  1. Light, bright, vibrant spaces.

We’ve learnt that activities shouldn’t be hidden away behind closed doors. Glass walls, visual connectivity and lots of natural light make the spaces inviting. It also means members can see their friends having a go, and that they can observe an activity before trying it themselves.

  1. Give young people ownership.

By paying the affordable 50p entrance fee, and £5 membership, Youth Zone members actively contribute to their Youth Zone. They also have control over what they do at a session and can move freely between activities they choose without a rigid structure. All this combined creates a sense of ownership of the space and a level of pride and respect towards it.

  1. Building an inclusive, supportive environment.

We’ve developed a structure for the sessions that we call ‘try, train, team’ that’s based around encouraging and supporting members to try activities at a level and pace comfortable for them. Members can try their hand at an activity, if they enjoy it they can train and develop their skills with the support of coaches, and they can further build their passion by getting involved in a team, either in a Youth Zones or in the local community.

And it works, 70% of members consider that they are healthier. Members tell us they take part in more physical activity for more days per week, with our latest evaluation showing that those doing significant physical activity at least weekly almost doubled. 100% of our stakeholders, including local authorities, schools and youth services providers, have also said that the Youth Zone moved people from inactive to active lifestyles.

It blows me away every time I walk into a Youth Zone and I feel the sense of excitement that’s generated during a session. Friends catching up in the recreational area, laughter and energy echoing through the building – nothing beats the sound of young people getting involved, moving and having fun while they do it.

We want more young people to get that buzz of trying a new sport or learning a new skill. That’s why we work to bring more Youth Zones to more communities across the country and why youth organisations need to be part of the solution to improve children’s physical activity levels.