It is often said that children are great imitators, so it’s important to give them something great to imitate.
But what happens when the activity being imitated is not an enjoyable one, leaving a profound and long-lasting negative association?
One doesn’t need to look any further than the parkrun blog to read scores of testimonies from parkrunners who swore they would “never run again” after being forced to do school cross-country or athletics, which for years or in many cases decades they associated with pain, pressure and humiliation.
Of course, these courageous people who have publicly recounted their own traumatic experiences of being forced to run in their younger years are only the tip of the iceberg in the context of seven million parkrunners globally.
Thankfully, and reassuringly, children are increasingly being introduced to organised physical activity in a supporting and welcoming environment that elicit feelings of joy, friendship and fun.
One such movement that is leading the way in establishing these positive associations with physical activity celebrates its 10th anniversary this weekend.
Its name is junior parkrun – a free, weekly 2k event for 4-14 year-olds and their families every Sunday morning.
Chapter 1: Proof of concept
That first Sunday morning in April 2010 saw nine children and a group of parents and volunteers quietly walk, jog, run, skip and laugh along a 2k route in London’s Bushy Park.
These pocket-sized pioneers have since paved the path for more than 430,000 people around the world to participate in what we now know as junior parkrun.
Small letters, big idea.
At that time, parkrun as a movement was still in its infancy compared to where it is now: 31 events in the UK and a single event in Denmark with just a few thousand participants each week.
The brainchild of Bushy junior parkrun was Paul Graham (pictured below), who like so many others had fallen in love with the concept of 5k parkrun but who wanted to create an event that was bespoke to children and young people.
“I felt something new was needed that was specific to children, including those with health conditions. As an occupational therapist and a sports coach I was in a good position to put something together,” Paul recalls.
“Just like 5k parkrun there was no pressure and kids who can’t run or walk can still add meaning or value to their community and have fun.
Unlike many school-led or club-led activities where performances are judged, we made it about taking part with others rather than the actual task of running.
Paul is a strong advocate of ‘social prescribing’, which involves referring patients to non-medical treatments such as physical activity and fresh air. He believed that junior parkrun could provide another outlet for many of the people he supports.
“For example, young people with autism and Asperger’s can enjoy specifically tailored tasks, so they don’t have to make decisions that could disrupt or disorient them such as changing direction or speed.
They can just run, which they enjoy because their flow of thinking isn’t interrupted,” says Paul.
In the early days, junior parkruns were held monthly and in just a handful of locations. Following the launch of Bushy in 2010, Forest of Dean junior parkrun started in 2011 followed by Savill Garden in 2012 and Woodley juniors early the following year.
It was around this time that a chance encounter between Paul Sinton-Hewitt and Chrissie Wellington, the recently retired four-time Ironman World Champion, cemented the direction junior parkrun would take.
Chapter 2: Scaling up
Chrissie was exploring career options and wanted to set up a non-profit organisation to promote physical activity amongst young people, while Paul’s vision was to find a way to work with schools to provide pupils with the chance to take part in fun, regular, social physical activity.
Both shared a strong view that physical activity should be embedded as an enjoyable activity so that it would become habitual from a young age.
“Paul’s initial idea was for me to set up a physical activity event in schools,” Chrissie recalls. “I was incredibly passionate about the concept but by this point, there were four thriving junior parkruns and significant demand from many other communities around the UK so this seemed the most appropriate path to follow.
Delivering junior events also aligned more closely with parkrun’s existing operational model rather than alien environment of schools.”
Chrissie quickly set about refining the concept of junior parkrun to ensure the delivery of events would be simple, safe and eminently scalable.
A steering group involving education professionals was established to consider every element of the concept such as the distance, regularity, age range, start time, day of the week, adult involvement, volunteering opportunities and what to call the events.
Emails from the time show alternate names such as ‘mini-parkrun’ being discussed.
“Of all the considerations, safeguarding was of utmost importance and had an impact beyond just our junior events,” Chrissie explains.
“We leant heavily on external experts and developed the first incarnation of our written safeguarding policy, which was a major step in putting the safeguarding of all parkrun participants at the heart of everything we do.”
A much simpler decision during the design process was that junior events would be every Sunday morning rather than monthly.
“The 5k parkrun model was weekly and we knew that if a child missed one of the monthly events it would be a minimum of two months between when they could take part. In order to affect behaviour change, it needed to be regular and habitual and weekly events maximise opportunities for sustained participation,” Chrissie says.
A year after Paul and Chrissie’s first conversation, the pieces of the jigsaw were in place. On 24th November 2013, Southampton junior parkrun became the first weekly event to launch when 90 participants descended on Riverside Park.
70 more junior parkruns events would follow over the next two years.
Chapter 3: Spreading the word
Two years later there were more than 70 junior parkruns in the UK and Ireland was ready to launch.
It was at this time that junior parkrun entered the next phase of its evolution thanks to a Corporate Social Responsibility investment from Warburton’s.
Rowan Ardill, a long-standing event director and volunteer ambassador, was tasked with leading a project that aimed to support the establishment of junior parkruns in areas of social deprivation.
“I have spoken to so many adults who recall a negative first experience of being physically active,” Rowan says. “I saw it as my mission that, 20 years from now, a whole load of young adults will have a wonderful, positive association with physical activity having grown up with parkrun and junior parkrun in their lives.”
101 new junior parkrun events were launched in disadvantaged areas of Great Britain throughout the project and more than 20,000 participants from deprived areas completed almost 140,000 junior parkruns.
By this time there were more junior parkrun events located in the most disadvantaged areas of Great Britain than there were in total at the beginning of the project.
One of the communities to benefit from the project was Hull, which launched the aptly named Peter Pan junior parkrun in April 2017. Event Director Paul Martindale had seen a junior event on a trip to London and was determined to bring the concept to the North East.
“Our local area has some of the highest levels of social deprivation and inactivity amongst children in the whole of the UK,” says Paul. “I felt junior parkrun had the potential to have a massive impact in an area where a lot of people have struggles in lots of ways.
“It has been fantastic to see so many children taking part, with around half of children going round the course with a parent, which we know has led to some of those parents taking up running.
“We often have under 18s volunteering in a wide variety of roles, and on some occasions we have had more than 10 children helping at a single event, which increases their confidence, skills and their awareness of volunteering.
There are numerous examples of children increasing their confidence and their attitude to exercise, and since we began our event, another junior parkrun has started in the city with a third on the way, with another two in the wider local area.”
According to Rowan, the project also represented a seminal moment in the history of parkrun as an organisation.
“This was one of the first instances where parkrun was proactive in terms of its approach to engaging children, families and communities in its events,” he says. “Its legacy stems from the opportunity we had to move away from organic growth and begin to understand how to shape demand for our events. It was about ensuring that junior parkrun was accessible to as many people as possible.”
Despite the successes, not everything went exactly to plan.
“A few years ago I was in south Wales with some colleagues and we put ourselves down to volunteer at Bridgend junior parkrun,” explains Rowan. “I was down on the roster to be the ‘Lead Bike’ which involved cycling in front of the group so they knew where to go, however when I arrived I was told there was no bike so I would have to run.
This was far from ideal as I’d just finished some early morning hill repeats on one of the biggest hills in the area!
“Despite giving myself a 50-metre head start I was caught within 60 seconds by a 14-year-old. I bravely battled on for the entire 2k and only just managed to stay ahead of the 10-year-old girl who crossed the line a couple of minutes later. I’ve never heard the end of it since!”
Chapter 4: Going global
At the same time as junior parkrun in the UK was embarking on its project to introduce events to socially deprived communities, junior parkrun in Ireland was kicking off with the launch of Rush juniors in Dublin.
“5k parkruns were firmly established in Ireland at this point and we knew that many juniors were getting involved but not completing the full distance,” recalls parkrun Ireland Country Manager Matt Shields.
“parkrun Ireland received some of its funding from the government and child inactivity was one of its biggest concerns, which meant there was broad support for junior parkrun.
“We were also supported by Athletics Ireland who helped us with Garda vetting, safeguarding compliance and our relationships with many of their member clubs.
It’s been a win-win because we are engaging many more young people while local running clubs are able to spot new members through junior parkrun.”
There are now 27 junior parkruns in Ireland with more in the pipeline.
The impact of junior parkrun is now truly global with its launch in Australia in April 2018. Complexities and differences in legislation between each of the country’s six states and two territories required a framework to be developed to ensure legal compliance across all areas of the country – a process that took more than two years.
Following the successful completion of this project, Southport junior parkrun launched on the Gold Coast followed soon after by Westerfolds juniors in Greater Melbourne and Cannonvale juniors in the Whitsundays.
Up to six more junior events are expected to launch in Australia in the first 12 months after parkrun recommences.
Chapter 5: A family affair
Like 5k parkrun, junior parkrunners are also rewarded for reaching participation milestones.
A blue wristband is available to juniors who complete 11 events (Half Marathon Club), a green wristband is earned after 21 events (Marathon Club) and an orange band is earned by those who join the Ultra Marathon Club upon completion of 50 junior parkruns. A certificate is also awarded to people who complete 100 events.
Regular participation isn’t solely an incentive for young participants either. Research carried out in May 2018 showed that for every 100 junior parkrunners, at least 40 adults also took part alongside them.
With more than 350,000 juniors crossing the line over the past 10 years the impact on adults and family units has also proven to be significant.
One such example is the Wantling family in Salford.
“I never thought running would be for me because I was always the kid at school who used to forge letters from my parents to say that I couldn’t do PE, so it was the most far removed thing that I had ever thought to do,” Mum of three Stacey said.
Stacey eventually plucked up the courage to go along to her local 5k parkrun and she and her husband lost 10 stone between them. Then they accidentally stumbled across junior parkrun in their local park.
Having seen the transformation that running had had on his Mum and Dad, their Alfie instantly said he wanted to give it a go the next week. Alfie’s brother started coming too and it quickly became a family affair.
“junior parkrun has definitely helped with Alfie’s confidence,” says Stacey.
“He was having some issues with bullying at school because he’s never been into the same sort of things as lots of the other boys. junior parkrun has given him the confidence to be comfortable in himself and the fact that he likes what he likes.”
Katy, a visually impaired member of Ramsbottom Running Club in Greater Manchester, believes junior parkrun has had a profound effect on her foster daughter Ella who lives with Dyspraxia and a mild learning difficulty.
“When Ella came to live with us she saw the enjoyment I got from going for a run. She wanted to come with me to club runs but i knew this would not be appropriate for her. Instead we went along to junior parkrun.
“Ella had never been a particularly active child which has meant some adults have reluctant to let her join in activities, but on that day she got dressed faster than I’d ever seen.
She was so excited. Ella now feels very welcome when we go to junior parkrun, she loves to help the other volunteers and even helped lead the warm-up at the last event we went to.
She loves telling people that she goes running and always comments on how much happier she feels when she has completed the run.
“Ella loves to chat to both the other children and adults and she is happy to complete the course with a mixture of walking and running. We are so glad Ella is able to take part in such a lovely event where she is included, feels great about herself and is keeping fit and healthy.”
Chapter 6: Education collaboration
Whilst the outbreak of COVID-19 has temporarily halted junior parkruns around the world, it gives us a moment to reflect on how Paul Sinton-Hewitt’s original vision for junior participation has come full circle.
Paul was determined to collaborate with education providers to embed physical activity and all its associated benefits inside classrooms and playgrounds, as well as inside the psyche of teachers, parents and pupils.
Now, in the absence of junior parkrun, online activities designed to engage pupils and their parents are doing just that.
Chrissie Wellington says “One of the few upsides we can take from the current situation is that it’s forced us to consider how we engage people and what we can bring to people’s lives beyond a physical 5k or 2k event. School of parkrun is a case in point.
“For a long time we’ve wanted to integrate parkrun into the school curriculum and we now have an opportunity to develop and test an education resource to engage young people and their families.
It is our ambition that in the longer term, activities such as the ones we are undertaking now are continued beyond COVID-19 because they are really exciting and are a chance to prove concept.
“We are now linking more closely with schools and we want to see junior parkrun as part of an activity pathway to allow us to collaborate with other providers to create genuine culture change.
We are reaching out through active partnerships to connect teachers and other education professionals with junior parkrun.”
In these increasingly uncertain times, one thing that’s clear is that more and more children only know a world in which junior parkrun exists. That means more people who associate moving their bodies with their friends and families as a joyful experience that they want to repeat over and over.
Just ask the 431,000 people who have participated at the 428 junior parkruns around the world a total of more than four million times.
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