When it comes to getting kids active, our schools hold a special advantage. They have our kids all week long, and they have immediate access to gymnasiums and sports fields. Yet physical education and sports programs have suffered for over a decade as school boards face funding cuts and strained budgets. Gym classes receive less emphasis at the elementary level, and many schools no longer have specialist teachers in physical education.
How many more kids might be active if all schools had robust sports and activity programs where all the children had the chance to play? With the right investment of people and resources, schools could be the undisputed leaders in developing physical literacy and helping kids become active for life.
Through the Prince Albert and Area Athletic Association, this is exactly what is happening.
Called P4A for short, the umbrella association of public and Catholic elementary schools in the Prince Albert area of Saskatchewan provides an unprecedented volume of quality sport opportunities for kids. Through P4A programs, thousands of children in grades 4 through 8 participate in cross country running, volleyball, basketball, curling, badminton and track and field. And it all happens through their schools.
“This fall, I think we had over 100 volleyball teams and 94 basketball teams at the elementary level,” says Ron Stewart, the P4A athletic coordinator. “At any given time of the year, there are about 1,000 kids playing any one sport.”
These numbers are impressive when you consider that Prince Albert is a small city with only about 40,000 people. Add the surrounding towns within the one-and-a-half-hour striking range of a school bus, and you have more than two-dozen elementary schools participating in the inter-school elementary leagues.
How does P4A accommodate so many kids?
“Instead of having one team for the boys and one team for the girls, we have as many teams as kids that want to play,” says Bill Simpson, a retired school principal who was one of the founders of P4A and now sits as a member of the executive. “The P4A works really hard to keep as many people participating as possible.”
P4A programs have proven so popular that they have grown steadily since inception 12 years ago. Schools are allowed to enter teams in the A level or the B level according to their own discretion, and the result is that every child is able to play at an appropriate level. With P4A running things from a central office, schools of all sizes can basically offer more students more expansive sports programming at more efficient cost.
“Some schools have as many as 550 kids, and some have as few as 75, so when we setup our leagues, we setup divisions to make the competition fair,” says Stewart.
It’s all part of the P4A aim to keep kids playing while meeting the needs and purposes of different participants. P4A supports excellence as much as general participation, but they stop short of running year-round training or encouraging specialization in any one sport.
“We believe in multisport approach,” says Simpson. “There are defined seasons for each sport with a start and finish. We would frown on someone playing basketball or volleyball all year round.”
With the numbers of children involved, a sizeable investment in transportation, referees and coaching clinics is required to operate the P4A programs. The costs, including Stewart’s salary as overall program coordinator, are covered by annual financial commitments to P4A from the member school districts. By working collectively, schools are able to get more programming for their dollar while allowing classroom teachers to focus on their regular teaching duties.
Simpson says it takes vision and planning on the part of school boards and governments to produce such comprehensive programming.
“You can’t do it if you don’t have the money, or you don’t have the organization,” says Simpson. “Our school division has been highly supportive with money for travel costs and money for the P4A association.”
The P4A may be the most inclusive school sports association in Canada. Given that our kids spend so much time in school, we might hope that more school districts across Canada will look to follow the P4A example.
It will take investment and planning – and a commitment by both parents and school boards that physical education is a priority – but it would go a long way in promoting physical literacy and lifelong wellness for our children.