Getting South Africa’s kids moving

Soweto teachers are now trained to
offer an agility training programme as part
of the Life Orientation curriculum.

Moving It’s founder Dr Claire Nicholson at
work in Soweto.

A Life Orienation teacher preparing herself
for the programme.
(Images: Bongani Nkosi)

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Bongani Nkosi

Dr Claire Nicholson, a fitness scientist, opted for earlier retirement from her plush job at Wits University to dedicate time to helping South Africa’s youngsters stay active and avoid physical problems during childhood and later in life.

She’s the driving force behind Move-It, Moving Matters, a year-old national campaign promoting physical training in schools. The school years are an important development period during which the psycho-social and motor skills evolve.

The lecturer put her 30-year career behind her to retire at 60. “At Wits the retirement age is 65, but I opted out as the campaign was demanding more of my time,” she said in an interview.

Agility exercises have now been incorporated into the Life Orientation curriculum in public and private schools, largely as a result of Move-It’s influence.

Healthy body, healthy mind

Soweto’s primary schools will introduce the programme when schools open after the July holiday. Grade four teachers from the township’s 30 primary schools turned out in numbers for coaching conducted by Nicholson and her team.

Clearly in high spirits, the teachers took the various drills in their stride on the grounds of Mamba Primary School in Chiawelo, a Soweto suburb.

The training session was meant to prepare the Life Orientation teachers for their new field of coaching.

“The learners will be excited by this programme; they’ll make it come alive,” Nicholson said.

Move-It is targeting at least 13-million pupils in the country’s primary and secondary schools. According to Nicholson it’s already a hit at some institutions in the East Rand and Vaal region in Gauteng province, and Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape.

Pupils troop out to training grounds at least once or twice in a week with their Life Orientation teacher for exercising.

Besides stimulating the mind, the programme could work well to prevent childhood obesity. The exercises are tailor-made for the acquisition and mastery of balance, locomotion, neuro-motor control, spatial awareness, timing, cardiovascular strength, hand-eye and foot-eye manipulation and team work, as Move-It puts it.

The training programmes “enhances our sense of balance and ability to manipulate every part of our body,” Nicholson noted.

“If we get all our children active we’ll have healthy children,” she said.

The campaign’s blue bag provides exercise equipment worth R300 (US$44) for each child. The bag includes basic material such as jumping ropes, footballs, and other items that make it fun for children to exercise.

Anna Nemudzivhadi, a grade four teacher at Mveledzadivho Primary School in Chiawelo, is looking forward to initiating the programme in her class. She said: “Children will love it and it will keep them active.”

She found the exercises to be as stimulating to the mind as they are to the body, and she believes they will help the slower pupils in her class.

“When you train your body you think fast,” Nemudzivhadi said.

Support from public and private sectors

Nicholson said participating schools are already reporting improvement in their pupils’ results. “Everything improves through movement,” she added.

The Gauteng Department of Education has “completely endorsed” the programme, allowing it to be included in the curriculum. “It’s now an obligatory part of school learning,” said Nicholson.

Local businesses, too, have come out to support the initiative, and fuel company Total has provided R1-million ($145.5 000) as sponsorship.

Producing future sports stars

Nicholson wants to change the fact that currently the crème de la crème of South Africa’s international athletes come almost exclusively from private and independent schools.

Public schools are failing to produce a greater number of quality sportspeople “because they have been deprived of this field (advanced physical training) of experience”.

As part of the campaign the wealthy private schools are urged to help their public counterparts with training initiatives, Nicholson said. “We’re levelling the playing field between the haves and have-nots.”

A “talent-harvesting” scheme is part of Move-It, according to Nicholson. The campaign’s facilitators are mandated to identify talent in schools they work with.

“We then alert Sascoc (South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee) and the Department of Sports and Recreation to take note of these young people,” Nicholson said.

Nicholson pointed out that it takes 12 years to produce a fully-fledged athlete, which is why it’s better to start training youngsters at an early age.

Nicholson is passionate about helping youngsters sidestep physique anomalies such as slouching, which she says tend to affect their performance in the workplace.

“I’m tired of seeing young people in my practice who come with deficits as 40-year-olds they should not have,” she added.