Tommy George: Get children fit for the future

Moving is good for us. Regular physical activity is important for all of us through our lives, making us feel better, function better and live longer. Regular movement, activity and participation in sport and leisure activities are essential building blocks for a healthy life, reducing our risk of multiple life-threatening diseases.

Tommy George is Community Development Manager at Edinburgh Leisure

Active children are more likely to grow into active, healthy adults so it’s important to focus on giving all children the active start in life they need, and support them to carry this through into adulthood. The amount of physical activity children take part in during childhood positively influences their future, improving their health, happiness and even their performance at school and employment prospects as young adults.

The Scottish Health Survey results show that when you exclude school based activity, 32 per cent of children and young people are not meeting the recommended guidelines for physical activity. Since 1998 around a third of Scottish children have not been active enough to benefit their health.

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Inactive children grow into inactive adults, who are more likely to develop serious health conditions and chronic diseases. Physical inactivity results in 2,500 premature deaths in Scotland each year and costs our NHS £91 million annually. If we are to reverse these trends and encourage more children to grow into active, healthy adults we need to start early. At Edinburgh Leisure our clear focus is on providing a range of opportunities and support, ensuring that everyone can get active, stay active and lead a healthier life.

For the families of children with additional support needs, getting active presents a significant challenge. Children and young people with disabilities are much less likely to take part in physical activity. At Edinburgh Leisure we are dedicated to adapting our services and developing opportunities that enable and support people with additional needs to take part in physical activity, improving health and wellbeing.

The potential benefits of physical activity for people with a disability are enormous. Regular participation in physical activity improves physical health and emotional wellbeing, builds self-confidence and can help transform children’s understanding of their personal abilities and potential. Physical activities offer children with additional needs a chance to have fun, take risks, develop skills and make friends. Children with disabilities who participate in extra-curricular activities have more active friendships than those who do not.

When planning physical activity services for people with additional needs we need to recognise that what works for some children will not necessarily work for others. While some families are seeking opportunities for their children to be included within a mainstream physical activity session or coached activity, others are looking for specific support and separate provision. As a charity dedicated to supporting everyone to get active, we recognise this and provide a programme of opportunities which offers choice to children, young people and their families.

Over 100 children and young people with additional needs come to our ASN swim programme each week. They can access a range of support from 1:1 sessions in the pool with dedicated swim teachers to small group sessions, where children can interact and have fun with their peers while learning to swim and enjoying time in the water. Through working closely with parents, the City of Edinburgh Council and a local Special Educational Needs school, we have also been able to offer more chances for families of children with additional needs to swim together casually.

Through our wider coaching offering we support children and young people with additional needs to learn new skills in sports such as diving, football, tennis, trampolining and boccia, and our Saturday morning Activ8 programme offers a broad based, fun and inclusive multi-activity session for both primary and secondary aged children.

When young people with additional needs want to join in more mainstream activity, Edinburgh Leisure works with partners to support them to do just that. Our Friday night Open All Hours programme attracts 300 teenagers a week to Edinburgh Leisure centres across the city. For 15 years we have worked alongside staff from FABB Scotland, an Edinburgh based voluntary organisation, to ensure young people with additional needs who want to attend are encouraged and supported to do so.

To ensure we meet the needs of children with disabilities, we must listen and respond to what parents, and the children and young people themselves, are telling us. When parents of children with autism told us our existing soft play sessions were too noisy, busy and overstimulating for their kids, we created a weekly dedicated session for children with additional needs, their siblings and families, providing a place where the whole family can get together in a supportive environment to relax, have fun and get active.

We are committed to working together with other charities, schools and parents to improve the activities available for children with additional needs – if you have ideas, want to help, or can think of ways we can do better, please get in touch.

Tommy George is Community Development Manager at Edinburgh Leisure