Children engaging in non-competitive sport in Leicester

Learning through Play and Active Movement: The impact of a competitive focus in sport as a priority over fun on long-term engagement in physical activity amongst children

Children are naturals when it comes to play and movement, the only thing they are missing is the guidance to hone those abilities into something we recognise as “sport”. Through their own endeavours, children will learn by themselves how to move and take advantage of their natural environment to develop their own coordination, balance and, when other children are present, communication skills. Movement, after all, keeps us healthy and it’s part of human nature to engage in physical activity when we are children.

The problem is, as we get older, with all the distractions in our lives, it’s so easy to forget how to play and enjoy movement as we adopt more sedentary lifestyles and only those who deliberately seek out competitive sports or are encouraged to maintain their athleticism into adulthood are likely to maintain active lifestyles long-term. Whilst the number of young people engaging in at least 30 minutes of physical activity per day is on the rise, there is still 29% of children in England who aren’t achieving this minimum recommended amount of physical activity (Sport England, 2019) and 80% of children and young people in England quit sport by the age of 15 years old (ACTIVEkids, 2017) and this can be due to several reasons. One of the barriers to voluntary sport in the UK is the cost and time associated with taking part in organised sports (Somerset & Hoare, 2018). Somerset & Hoare (2018) concluded that “more local sports opportunities are needed where costs are reduced. Schools and local clubs could better work together to provide more affordable local opportunities to increase children’s participation in sport” and A Hill Sport LTD, trading as Active Future Leicester and AltSport, through their low-cost, monthly subscription model that provides access to non-competitive sport aims to fulfil this need; our sessions are designed entirely around the needs of customers and our players and we work to find times which are suitable for the majority of our customers’ schedules whilst keeping costs low through our venue partnerships despite all of our staff earning at least £15 per hour.

Of course, cost and time aren’t the only barriers. For many, it is a perceived lack of competence and ability that holds them back from lifelong participation in sport and activity (Noonan, 2013); there is too much emphasis on the need for competitive development and athletic ability and for many children, that isn’t what they desire – after all, their competitive needs can be readily achieved playing computer games – going back to the first point of this article, children play and move because they crave fun (Swift, 2017) and when the primary focus is on athletic development and competition, sport becomes a chore. It’s crucial, therefore, for sports providers to maintain the play element of sport with a key focus on fun rather than winning against other teams. This is why non-competitive sports environments are critical to maintaining long-term play.

The alternative is to watch the decline of children engaging in lifelong participation and whilst positive moves are being made to improve sports provision across the UK, engagement is short-lived for the majority; the average child will only maintain a membership of organised sports for just four weeks before leaving the sport and only a minority of children aged 5-15 years old will maintain their memberships of competition-focused sports (Public Health England, 2020); this coincides with the need for non-competitive sports which focus on fun instead of athletic development. Active Future Leicester runs weekly dodgeball sessions across Leicester and Leicestershire for children aged 6-12 years old and Diddydodgers for children aged 4-8 years old which specifically focus on motor skills development; these sessions are non-competitive and focus entirely on the fun of sport and provides children with a safe environment to be who they want to be, to improve their physical activity levels, their communication skills, their social skills as well as their coordination, balance and overall health and wellbeing.

Another key consideration is the lack of range of activity in schools. The average school or college will offer just 15 sports per year for at least 10 weeks according to Public Health England (2020) and these are severely limited in terms of what times they are run (either during school hours or immediately after schools) and the timing often conflicts with other commitments including their parent’s work schedules or other in-school activities; a lot of children will not sacrifice their social needs in favour of competitive sports meaning they will be reluctant to replace their school break times (often referred to as playtime for a reason) to attend school sports and after school clubs may conflict with their parent’s schedules making it difficult for them to be able to take part then. The other critical factor is that most school and college sports are only available during term time and during the summer and Christmas school holiday periods, children may be left without access to sport for between 4 and 6 weeks, this is ample enough time for a child to become demotivated and find something else to fill the void and the likelihood of returning to sports at the end of this period diminishes. This is why external sports organisations like Active Future Leicester are critical at maintaining sports engagement in Leicester and Leicestershire and the wider UK. There is also a lack of space in schools that offer indoor sports games for primary school students due to primary schools being typically much smaller than secondary schools and colleges and schools are challenged with enabling sports activities for students; the provision of PE is lacklustre at best with most PE teachers relying on scarce resources and being unable to develop mini sports games ideas for the children they work with. The best sports activities in schools are ones that focus on fun and inclusivity and are able to be adapted to the space available, especially when it comes to indoor sports for children in Leicester and Leicestershire.

Children will find more enjoyment and engagement in physical activity whilst out playing with their friends; building dens, jumping over streams, playing football down the park without the presence of a coach or referee and so on, but why is this? Is it because they lack of structure and empowerment which allows children to decide how they play are key factors in physical activity engagement? I think so. The typical structure of organised sports is one which features a coach ordering their players around in a bid to exploit their player’s athletic capabilities and this is fine for those who want to play competitively where the main focus is on winning, but what about those whose priorities don’t include winning matches against other clubs? This is where less-structured, uncompetitive sports becomes critical for engaging these children in physical activity. By not focusing on skills development, children are given the freedom to discover, explore and develop their own individual skills whilst leaning on our coaches for that extra support should they wish to develop skills, such as accuracy and coordination, further. By having the freedom to learn how their abilities differ from their peers, they will be better able to communicate with those peers and develop strategies to accommodate each other proficiencies and deficiencies and this itself is critical for inclusive sports which are truly inclusive of all players and that doesn’t segregate sports based on those who are able-bodied and those who live with a disability; Active Future Leicester prides itself on creating an environment where those who are less physically able are able to take part equally with those who are fully able but this is another topic entirely. The problem is, if children find something too challenging or boring, they will soon stop engaging in that sport and the demands expected of players who engage in competitive sports can be so high that it eliminates the fun aspect of play (Swift, 2017). It goes without saying that play without fun is pointless and this is when competitive sports become a chore.

With all of this in mind, it reemphasises Somerset & Hoare’s conclusion from their 2018 study which considered the barriers of voluntary participation in sport for children that more local sports opportunities are needed but I’d like to suggest that Swift (2017) allows us to build on this conclusion with the recognition of the need for non-competitive sports. The evidence so far demonstrates that the number of children who spend time playing outside is falling and whilst the uptake in sport is increasing amongst young people, their engagement is short-lived and unsustainable – children spend double the amount of time in front of a screen (Jenkins, 2018) watching TV or playing video games or spending time on social media (which demonstrates the need for social interaction in and of itself) than they do playing sport to fulfil their need to have fun. If we could increase the amount of fun and social opportunities available through the provision of sport, then surely this would encourage more children to take up sport long-term instead of spending so much time in front of a screen which, besides meeting their fun and social needs, does little to improve their overall physical health and wellbeing. This is what we focus on as an organisation, by ensuring fun is at the forefront of every activity and sport that we run, we are able to encourage more children to take part in sport long-term and encourage healthier lifestyles amongst children. We would love to see more organisations follow in our footsteps to improve the provision of non-competitive, fun-based sports across the city and county and across the UK in general. By increasing the provision of sports activities for kids which focus more on fun, children are a lot more likely to engage in sport long term and into adulthood as it will instil a love of movement which is one of our own core values in the services we provide across Leicester and Leicestershire.


ACTIVEkids. 2017. Youth Sports Participation By the Numbers. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 19 February 2022].

Jenkins, R., 2018. Computer screens keeping children from playing outside, claims study. [online] The Independent. Available at: <> [Accessed 19 February 2022].

Noonan, K., 2013. The real reason why our kids quit sport. [ebook] Available at: <> [Accessed 19 February 2022].

Somerset, S. and Hoare, D., 2018. Barriers to voluntary participation in sport for children: a systematic review. BMC Pediatrics, 18(1).

Sport England. 2019. Latest activity figures on children and young people published. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 19 February 2022].

Swift, T., 2017. Learning through movement and active play in the early years. 1st ed. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publisher.

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