What should we do if our little ones shy away from physical activities? Becky Pugh explores how to nurture a positive relationship with sport
My two-year-old, Louis, thinks mostly about balls. He could kick one before he could walk. When he can’t find a bat, he fashions one out of a hairbrush. You can tell at 10 paces he is a physical creature. Athletic, coordinated and passionate about all games, and my husband is delighted by Louis’ enthusiasm.
The strengths of our five-year-old, Arthur, meanwhile, seem to lie far from the playing field. He ditched football after a term. He would rather raid the dressing-up box and put on a show than pick up a racket. His swimming lessons are a weekly struggle.
I agonise over how to foster the skills of one without making the other feel inadequate. My tendency is to let Arthur off the sporting hook, making much of his creative talents, at the same time as encouraging Louis’ fondness for all things physical. Arthur and I can be found sharing a carton of popcorn at the cinema while Louis and his dad kick a ball around a park. I fear my approach is flawed, however. In my attempts to shield Arthur from a sense of failure, I fear I am denying him access to something wonderful.
For my husband, as for many men and women, sport is a source of unending pleasure. My husband enjoys getting fit, whereas for me, it is a necessary evil. There is always something for him to watch on television. He gets to devour a whole section more of the Sunday papers than I do. Above all, more often than not, sport gives him common ground with other people.
Because the thing that matters most about sport is the bond it creates between human beings. Yes, it is fun, character-building and healthy – but those benefits can also be found elsewhere. Much more important is its place in the national psyche. Sport is a big deal in this country and it always will be. So instead of implying that sport doesn’t matter to spare Arthur’s blushes, I want to encourage him to learn its valuable language.
There are two bits of good news. The first is that ‘sport’ is a blessedly broad term. There are countless options beyond the obvious games of most school children. Olly Barratt, journalist and father of two boys, says: “My sons love sport, both watching and playing. One of the highlights of my week is taking them to football training. I believe that sport teaches them a huge amount that will be important in later life. Being part of a team, being fit and, of course, trying to be the best.
“I would not force them to play sport if they weren’t into it. But I would think about trying something off the beaten track.”
So what if tennis, cricket and football don’t yet appear to float Arthur’s boat? I am determined to investigate the unchartered waters of hockey, golf, cycling, skateboarding, basketball, gymnastics, squash, rowing, skiing, ping-pong and boxing (maybe). It is kinder to expose him to a range of sports – in addition to the art, music and drama that he loves – than to allow him to spurn them all.
The second bit of good news is that you can have a relationship with sport without any physical prowess at all. Writer and presenter Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood and 21st Century Boys, has a sensible take on it. “Some people like playing games and some don’t. It’s as simple as that,” she says. “But there are lots of ways of being interested in sport without actually having to play it.”
Her father was an ardent cricket fan. Though she never played, he taught her how to score and it provided hours of conversation between them throughout her childhood. She loves to watch cricket to this day.
With all of this in mind, my husband is taking Arthur to his first football match next month. They will wrap themselves in Fulham FC scarves and venture off, hand in hand. Arthur may not engage much with the offside rule, but he’ll eat hot dogs, hang out with his dad and learn lessons about life.
GET THEM INVOLVED
Fun, fresh air and friendship: The benefits of having a relationship with sport are endless. It builds character, promotes good health, instills team spirit, provides a common interest, teaches how to win and lose well, and gives children an outlet for their energy.
It takes all sports to make a world: If your child isn’t into the obvious choices of tennis, football, rugby and cricket, get creative with multiple alternatives.
You don’t have to play sport to like it: It is worth encouraging your children to watch matches, support teams and understand the rules of games.