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Till last year, the biweekly physical education (PE) period at Lodha World School, Mumbai, was more like a spare class. “Although the school had a yoga, gymnastics and sports instructor, the physical activity period was not structured and didn’t follow a curriculum,” recalls principal Anahita Landers. Sports were played randomly and many times the PE period was used to substitute for a missed math s or science class.

This changed when the school tied up with EduSports — a Bangalore-based sports education firm — in June this year. Like history and geography, sports became another subject —with a structured, age-appropriate curriculum and an assessment system to gauge each student’s progress. New indoor and outdoor games have been introduced at the school — including football, dodge ball, carroms and chess — and student participation is compulsory. “PE is no longer a free period. Children play games in a structured and organised way,” explains Landers.

Sports is, clearly, becoming serious business in urban India. In the last three years, about half a dozen sports education firms have been set up to provide structured, end-to-end physical education programmes to schools. “It has taken the schools some time to warm up to the idea of a structured sports programme. But the trend is here to stay,” says Saumil Majumdar, CEO, EduSports. The company provides its sports curriculum and services to 240 schools across the country.

Majumdar believes sports education is becoming professional in schools because of a growing demand from urban parents. “Parents want schools to provide a holistic development curriculum to students. This has brought sports into focus,” he explains.

As the market for professionally-managed sports education grows, companies are rolling out innovative programmes to grab eyeballs. The Delhi-based sports education firm Sportseed offers a play curriculum that covers 20 Olympic level disciplines. “We also offer day-long sports motivation workshops for students,” says director Sudhanshu Fadnis, adding that the company currently works with 40 schools.

Sportseed’s focus is on providing non-mainstream sports to schools such as archery, wushu, table tennis, sepak takraw — a Thai-Malaysian foot volleyball like game, and jump rope — a competitive version of skipping rope.

Meanwhile, EduSports peddles its products as programmes that extend the classroom into the playground. “Our programmes have the same rigour and structure as any academic subject. Also, the goal is not to win medals but to make all students healthier and fitter,” says Majumdar.

EduSports has divided its sports programmes into age-specific categories. Till Class II, students develop fundamental skills such as locomotor (walking and running), manipulative and spatial skills. At the next level, students understand the basics of sports by playing modified games. Formal sports education — in football, basketball, cricket and athletics — starts from Class VI.

In cricket-crazy India, a company providing exclusive cricket education in schools is a given. The Cricket India Academy — which is affiliated to Cricket Australia and started in 2009 — offers a six-level Cricket Education Programme for school students. “Besides, we also offer a range of student programmes such as Cricket Kids, Emerging Players and an Elite Camp,” says company CEO Martin Gleeson. The academy currently runs its programmes in Mumbai. “There is a growing demand from parents to provide better school sport activities and programmes and schools are responding to this,” says Gleeson.

Mumbai-based KOOH Sports has tied up with American fitness firm KID-FIT and offers its music-based aerobic exercise regimen to 20 schools across Indian metros. “Children learn about the body while moving to music. This exercise programme helps strengthen muscles and build cardiovascular fitness,” says Gaurav Mashruwala, chief marketing officer, KOOH Sports.

When Fadnis started Sportseed last June, his cold calls to schools were met with a wary response. “Schools were sceptical about outsourcing the sports curriculum to outside agents because of concerns over control of the programme and costs,” he says.

Sports education in Indian schools has stayed the same through the last three decades, without incorporating any modern methods such as technology use, assessments and fun-learning lesson plans, explains Fadnis. “While the teaching of academic subjects has seen innovative changes, sports education has remained the same,” he says. But he finds that this is now changing.

With the huge rise in the numbers of private schools being set up in Indian metros, the institutions are getting sports educators on board to showcase the all round development opportunities they provide to students. “Schools now understand that parents want more than just academic excellence for their wards,” says Fadnis.

As modern society increasingly becomes sedentary, obesity in children is becoming a cause of concern. A survey on the health and fitness of school students, conducted by EduSports last year, found that one in four children in the metros were overweight. “Of the 49,046 children surveyed, 20 per cent showed signs of obesity,” says Majumdar.

Children, clearly, do not have the same amount of incidental exercise and free play like they did a generation ago, explains Gleeson. He adds that global health research increasingly suggests that children who are involved in regular physical activity perform better in the classroom. “This is getting schools to strike a healthy balance between academics and play,” he explains.

Also, there are a whole lot of new career opportunities in the sporting field today —not only as athletes but as sports marketers, administrators and coaches. “A good participative understanding of sports in school can build a base for future career choices. This has put sports in the spotlight,” says Gleeson.

For Thilaga Athavan that’s too far in the future. The principal of Zee School, Madurai, was looking at improving the energy levels of students when she got EduSports on board this year to manage the school’s sports education. “We’ve made PE the first period of school every day. Students play basketball, volleyball and participate in track and field events,” says Athavan. The results of the early morning exercise sessions are showing in the classes that follow, adds the principal. “Teachers have reported that the children concentrate better and remain active all day,” claims Athavan.

However, professionally-managed sports education has its detractors as well. It goes against the principle of free play, which is essential for growing minds, according to a physical education instructor at a public school in Bangalore. “When sports for children is structured and assessed, it turns into yet another school lesson. Free play, on the other hand, allows children to be creatively active,” he adds.

COUCH POTATO SYNDROME

The EduSports School Health and Fitness Survey covered 49,046 children in the age group of seven to 17 years from 104 schools in 54 cities in the academic year 2011-12. Key findings:

39% do not have ideal body weight

20% are obese

24.9% in the metros are overweight

16.6% in non-metros are overweight

63.9% girls are fit

58.2% boys are fit

49.9% have low overall flexibility

42% have low abdominal strength

65% do not have flexibility in their upper bodies

54% do not have flexibility in their lower bodies

What Sports education firms have to offer schools :

Curriculum and props

Resource support

Programme monitoring tools

Workbooks and kits

Assessments

Coach training

Teaching life skills

Weekend and after-school sports coaching

Non-mainstream sports taught by sports education firms

Throwball

Kho-Kho

Kabaddi

Touch Rugby

Wushu

Sepak Takraw (a Thai Malaysian foot volleyball like sport)

Jump Rope