It’s 9.50 on a Saturday morning, and a steady stream of runners head towards the local common. You’d assume they were Park Runners – until you notice the unusually high number of young children – and even toddlers – weaving their way through the Nikes and lycra. But these small people are runners too – it’s the first Saturday of the month, and that means Kids Run Free.
Kids Run Free is, in my opinion, a brilliant way to get children running for fun from an early age. It is a charity set up in 2010 by Martine Verweij and Catherine O’Carroll, who, as part of their work in sports event management, noticed lots of children hanging around on the sidelines. They tried to incorporate children’s races alongside the adults’, but it didn’t take off. “Parents always found an excuse why their kids couldn’t do the races, and we realised, we’re missing something here,” says Martine. “If children aren’t allowed to do things they will stop wanting to.” So they devised a way of letting kids run on their own terms.
Like all genius ideas, the premise is simple: children run in their age group across distances ranging from 50-100m for the toddlers, to 500m for the nine-10 year-olds. Over-sevens can also join the kilometre club run. There’s a waiting area full of juggling sticks, spinning plates and skipping ropes, and before each group runs, enthusiastic volunteers take them through a thorough warm-up that generally dissolves into hilarity at the “kick your bottom” instruction.
Volunteers also lead the runners around their route and marshalls encourage them onwards if they flag in the final few metres (or, as often happens with the smaller ones, run in the wong direction). There are stopwatches so parents can time their child, and all participants have a card on which to mark their time – invaluable for levelling the playing field (each group spans a year in age) and teaching the concept of improvement and aiming for a PB, rather than winning outright.
The more races children run, the more rewards they earn. Photograph: Kids Run Free
Each time you run, you earn a sticker, and eight stickers earns a rather lovely Kids Run Free sweatshirt. Occasional novelties and surprises add to the fun and maintain anticipation – at Easter everyone was encouraged to bring an egg and spoon; in May every runner received a Kids Run Free sports bag, and in July the charity will host its annual summer event.
Using the (admittedly unscientific) measure of my own kids, it’s a huge success. My daughter’s first run was on an icy January morning of driving rain and frozen mud. She ran 300m in 1m32s and couldn’t wait to do it again. Over the last four months she has taken a full 16 seconds off her time and, to her absolute surprise and delight, came first in her group last month. She has marked all first Saturdays on the calendar, and – most significantly – doesn’t bat an eye at foregoing her weekend hour of CBeebies to take part. As she has just turned seven, she moves up a group, and can’t wait to run with “the big ones”.
My son (a more fair-weather runner), was deeply unimpressed by the rain, but has recently started coming with us again and is looking forward to his next sticker. They meet school friends there, and have started to greet other regulars as their “running mates”. The last meeting had 70 children taking part, and parents of the littlest children are often persuaded into running too, to hand-hold and steer.
In March 2013, a Department of Health policy paper revealed the astounding statistic that 30% of children aged 2-15 in England are overweight. Ofsted’s latest report on PE in schools states that children are not getting enough sustained physical activity in their sports lessons. Getting children running is surely an ideal way to start to address a potential health crisis: as any parent of toddlers will know, young children have a tendency to move at speeds which often cause amazement, if not alarm. A set-up such as that of Kids Run Free associates running with fun and it has the added bonus of costing not a penny – a significant incentive, given that children’s classes for many other things can seriously dent the household income.
Martine’s aim is to roll out Kids Run Free across the country – there are now seven events in the west Midlands and they’re ready to launch in one area of London, but need funding. The outlay isn’t much – to run an event costs just £1000 a year, which in my town will be provided by the local Round Table until 2016. Martine also puts all profits from her own company – Raceways – into Kids Run Free. “We are desperately looking for a sponsor,” she says: “But we haven’t yet pushed the magic button.” Talk of the Olympic legacy seems to have faded to a whisper recently, but what better legacy could there be than for children who watched Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah run to victory, to discover the pleasure of running themselves, with their peers?
source: The Guardian By Lucy Marcovitch