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Youth and sport - save the somersault!

 Surprise (Switzerland) 13 May 2019

(Originally published: 05/2010) Alarm bells are ringing in P.E lessons as children are becoming increasingly overwhelmed by climbing poles and skipping ropes. (1690 words) - Stefan Michel

Alarm bells are ringing in P.E lessons as children are becoming increasingly overwhelmed by climbing poles and skipping ropes. Special support programmes are trying to put things right. But perhaps it is time to revaluate P.E lessons during school time?

The somersault is at risk, "I always get young people who I have to teach the somersault to, although they should already be able to do it by the first year of school", says Rebekka Rohrer, a P.E teacher at a secondary school in Zurich. Pascal Buensoz, a P.E teacher in a vocational school agrees, "The somersault and simple climbing exercises present serious problems for many young people."

While a fulfilling life is conceivable without the somersault, isn't physical fitness a mere lifestyle choice and as such unnecessary? We no longer need to hunt for our food, most people earn their money sitting down, and we are able to get around with public transport and cars.

The reason for alarm bells ringing is "you can't teach an old dog new tricks". According to experts, children must do an hour's intensive exercise every day in order to physically develop positively. That's no problem for a child who cycles to school, who runs around in the playground, who does three P.E lessons a week and plays hide and seek or football after school. In doing so, they naturally develop their exercise routine, an interesting game which involves physical strength and the desire for more power. Skipping is fun at first if you do more skips in a row; the banal somersault is the first step towards acrobatics and reduces the risk of injuring yourself in a fall.

Children, on the other hand, who grow out of sport early on run the risk of becoming overweight and spend their adult life in the risk group for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and bone and joint diseases. People who don't exercise spend more time at the doctors than at work. Obesity-related loss of working hours and medical treatment alone cost the Swiss national economy 5.5 billion franks in 2006. In 2001 there wasn't even half that much, a study on behalf of the Federal Office for Health "overweight and obesity in Switzerland" has worked out.

Trailing behind in the Limmat Valley

The effects of the lack of exercise are evident before people reach full age. Alain Dössegger, research associate of the Federal Office for Sport, says, "We have more and more children with diabetes and the typical risk factors for cardiovascular disease." On the other hand, the positive effects of physical activity are, "sport and exercise are important for the physical and mental development of children, their health and psyche. Even school results are better if a child exercises more." And that's not all. "Sport can help people integrate. On the other hand, people who aren't sporty and are overweight, are often excluded."

Shelves full of scientific studies prove the positive effects of sport and exercise. It looks very different for the statistical evidence for the dying out of the somersault. Until recently, nobody was interested on a broad basis of how often and how skilfully Swiss children exercised. There are no long-term studies. "We have evidence," says Dössegger. "For example, fewer children walk or cycle to school. One in ten is driven by their parents to school. School doctors and kindergarten teachers are reporting more frequent motor deficiencies. The fact that more and more children are overweight is another indication of that. A certified instructor is directing the "Children on the Move" project, collecting theoretical and practical knowledge about physical activity and making it available to those who want to carry out the projects with this purpose.

The ETH, which also trains P.E teachers, has been filling in these statistical gaps since 2005 by "sports motor stocktaking" (SMBA): Around all of the 2,500 first year pupils in the city of Zurich complete a standardised test, which measures their coordinative capabilities, speed and stamina. The most talented 72 are allowed to participate in the "Talent Eye" support programme. For the 80 children at the other end of the list, the course is called "Movimiento". The SMBA's previous five age groups always ended up trailing behind; the Limmat Valley school district, which includes city districts four and five. These are the neighbourhoods near the city centre in which successful and hip people have dominated for a long time, but mainly where foreign families with below-average household income still send their children to school.

"Not very well coordinated"

In the Aemtler School for example, on a Monday afternoon at half past four the first children dash here, yelling in the gym, sliding on the smooth floor with their tracksuit bottoms, kicking balls through the area or trying to skip. You can't see any lazy-bones at first glance here.

Not even any fat children, at most, a little late baby fat here and there. Almost twenty children warm up with a game called "Green Monster", the game their parents used to call 'black man'. It involves various items, on which the seven and eight-year olds balance on, run, jump, climb or let themselves fall off. When they start skipping, the differences become very significant as most do ten or twenty jumps in a row. Some succeed however, without using much effort, jumping at the right moment or swinging the rope over their head. "Most of them who can are second year pupils and have been on the course for almost a year," explains Head teacher Alexandra Papandreou.

To the layperson, it looks like a group of children jumping around happily in a gym, with leaders and followers, daredevils and dreamers, the agile and the clumsy in a distribution that's not obvious. Alexandra Papandreou sees more: "Half of the new ones, which are only on their third time here, have serious shortcomings, and not only in motor respects." P.E teacher Rebecca Rohrer developed the concept of Movimiento, launched during the first two semesters of training itself and is now focused on the management of the program, after it has been extended from one of four school districts in Zurich (seven altogether), while continuing to teach in a secondary school.

Movimiento is a voluntary course, which takes place outside school hours. Rohrer estimates that two thirds of the children selected actually visit the additional P.E lesson, "we don't ascertain that systematically". Near the end of the lesson, two mothers are sitting in the corner of the gym waiting to pick up their kids. "My daughter doesn't sit about. She's just a bit bored that's all" explains one of them with a French accent. The other says, "We've already been to African dancing with our son because he isn't very well coordinated. Everything that helps him catch up is good." The Swiss woman is indeed an exception. It is unmistakable that the majority of the children on the Movimiento programme in the Aemtler School with their parents don't speak Swiss German. Sports scientist Dössegger will later say, "The number one risk group for lack of exercise is girls from families with a migrant background, who live in the city. Little available space and cultural restrictions can lead to it that the school gyms are the only opportunity for them to exercise. And that in itself, is often forbidden".

Sporty and smart

At the moment, support programmes such as Movimiento are cropping up in Switzerland by the dozen. With Children on the Move, some 90 projects are registered. Youth and Sport has been offering multi-sport courses for five to ten years since 2009. Over 40,000 children have already taken part. School gymnastics remains central, for nowhere else can you reach all the children in Switzerland. Sport and P.E teachers who were interviewed for this article all agreed that it's necessary to make school sport compulsory and especially for an increase in quality in primary schools. For in this crucial period there are no qualified gymnastics instructors in charge, there are primary school teacher who are broadly trained who specialise in arithmetic, languages and other "main subjects".

Dössegger thinks it is "great that there are school gyms at all, but from our perspective, the lessons are often not intensive enough, it is not intensive enough on the cardiovascular system, yet this requires trained sports teachers. Sports are also necessary homework, especially for children with deficiencies."

Rohrer also works in the centre for excellence of physical education; the teachers give P.E. lessons, supported by expert knowledge, so that they can encourage the children using suitable exercises to instil healthy exercise habits. She's convinced, "in addition, the quality of the compulsory gym hours has to be right."

"P.E is being taken seriously again," emphasises Dössegger. "It is the parents who don't like sending their kids to sport lessons, they must be aware that it is central to their development, as well as for their academic achievements. You aren't either smart or athletic, but athletic and smart."

The battle for the somersault has just begun, but running on a broad front. Starting in kindergarten. Basel's programme based on the Zurich model are looking after the "Summersault" project or rather "Somersault" project which makes progress back into the children's routines. Whether the, state-sponsored joy of movement has reached the desired effect, will show in the coming years.

Extra information

One in four don't exercise at all

People love sport in Switzerland. A whopping 80 percent show moderate to high interest in athletic excellence - preferably watching it on television, but also in the sports pages in the press and the Internet. You're average Swiss couple exercise less intensively. The half an hour of physical activity per day recommended by the World Health Organisation has reached 41 percent. Good news: The percentage of those who do sports several times per week has doubled over the last 30 years. Again, however, those who don't do anything physical or nothing at all has risen. About 27 percent do an average of less than half an hour of physical exercise per week - the same number as in 1978, as the investigation by the Federal Office for Sport "Sport Switzerland 2008" determines.

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