When we play their way, every child wins

How do you encourage children and young people in England to become more active when sport is far from accessible and inclusive where they live? 

In the year before the covid pandemic, Sport England published its Active Lives report, which revealed that half of children in England were not getting enough physical activity. The picture was worse for girls, teenagers, children from low-income families and minority communities, and children with disabilities or learning difficulties. These were the kids on the sidelines. 


From problem to possibility

The barriers to participation, perhaps unsurprisingly, centred on inaccessibility, exclusion, and a coaching culture often fixated on performance metrics, scorelines and promotions — rather than the professional purpose outlined by the Coaching Plan for England, which was “to support and guide children according to their individual needs and aspirations”.

It was a wake-up call that galvanised Sport England along with some of the country’s most forward-thinking individuals and initiatives across sport, education, wellbeing and inclusion to form a united response.

As the Children’s Coaching Collaborative, this collective of pioneers shared a clear ambition: to change children’s lives for the better through sport and physical activity. They wanted to address the inequalities and champion a more progressive, child-led coaching practice. They recognised that adults in coaching roles had the power to level the playing field for children by putting their needs first. But they’d yet to fully understand the who, what, why and how. 

We quickly formed a close, trusting relationship with the group, working with an openness to possibility that enabled us to evolve and adapt through the process organically. This meant we arrived at the right outcomes and most authentic ideas. 


Understanding what mattered most

Gathering and distilling a glut of research, we discovered what motivated children and young people to take part in physical activity. Fundamentally, three things mattered most: fun, freedom and belonging.

We then facilitated a series of strategic and creative workshops that led us to crafting a compelling narrative based on the voices, needs and rights of children and young people: the right to play, the right to be heard, and the right to develop. 

Serendipitously one of the Collaborators — Dr Debbie Sayers — came to the table as a human rights lawyer as well as a welfare officer at the trailblazing grassroots football club Salisbury Rovers. She demonstrated just how successful a child-centred coaching approach could be, and she’d suggested this could be underpinned by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children.  

At the heart of our narrative was a powerful statement of purpose:
To put every child and young person at the centre of our coaching practice. To play their way.

Such a shift for conventional practice would need a clear set of coaching commitments that all people who work with children could relate to, own and act on across a diverse landscape of programmes, circumstances and needs. They formed four pillars of practice asking adults to: Be child-centred in all they do; Put play before performance; Create community that includes; and Dedicate to developing children as well as themselves.

Naming a movement

It was clear to the group that play, so important to children’s development, had been squeezed out of the process in many traditional coaching or physical education contexts.

On the other hand, as breakthrough initiatives across the country proved, where children felt a sense of autonomy, personal freedom and a chance to play and collaborate rather than just compete and perform under unhealthy pressure, they flourished.

Play their way felt like the perfect call to action for adults working with children. It emerged as much more than a neat name for a campaign. It was a manifesto. A mindset and a movement. And a promise to change children’s coaching from the ground up.

How? By encouraging a child-centred approach underpinned by every child’s right to play, to be heard and to develop, whatever their means or background.

Putting principles into action  

This is truly groundbreaking stuff… how vital it is to think beyond safeguarding in a paternalistic sense to a model which commits to the genuine participation and empowerment of kids.

— Dr Debbie Sayers, club secretary & welfare officer, Salisbury Rovers FC  

What began as a humble exploration into how the group could remove barriers for children had resulted in a bold, playfully disruptive identity that could redefine the role of sport for young people in England. It felt revolutionary.

Summing up the sense of possibility and excitement among the group, Collaborator Jack Shakespeare from UK Active said: “Reading the draft narrative gives me an enormous sense of pride to have made even a small contribution to this. I genuinely believe that this work is the start of a movement that can and will change the way children experience sport and physical activity in this country, for good.”

“This is truly groundbreaking stuff,” added Dr Debbie Sayers. “How vital it is to think beyond safeguarding in a paternalistic sense to a model which commits to the genuine participation and empowerment of kids.”

Scaling up the commitments

The next step would be to envisage how the coaching commitments could scale up to a national campaign and programme.  After arriving at a compelling ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘why’, we helped the group use this as a framework for the ‘how’. This led to clear objectives for putting their progressive principles into action, and making their vision a reality.

Early signs of success 

The identity work played a vital part in getting the movement off the ground, helping to win a National Lottery grant to fund the next stages of the campaign and related research, which was focused on influencing coaches. 

At the time of writing, we’d handed over the concept and identity work to UK Coaching and their partners to take forward into the next phase. We don’t know how it’ll materialise, but we’re confident that in time, more and more adults will play their way and change the game for children and young people — for good.

➤ Secured a National Lottery grant to fund further research and roll-out of the strategy, programme and campaign

➤ Influenced overarching Sport England strategy for children and workforce

➤ Case heard by the House of Lords select committee on sports and recreation

➤ Overwhelmingly positive support from coaching communities in initial tests

➤ Play their way mandate and promise already filtering into communities at grassroots

➤ Greater awareness raised around barriers and inequalities children face


“Neo have been fantastic to work with going further than expected to help us truly understand what matters most to children when taking part in sport and physical activity delivered by someone coaching. They have supported us to align multiple national partners around a shared purpose, creating a powerful vision we are collaboratively striving towards every day.”

 Sion Kitson, coaching & professional workforce, Sport England