Proper Active took a lead role in designing content for the workshops and sessions with young people and provided the initial facilitation and delivery of the sessions. As the process unfolded, it was intended that local authority staff would take greater responsibility for leading sessions and developing the project, using the local insight gained from young people.
Further discussion with LA Leads led to the identification of key parameters for Phase 2. These were:
- Co-creation with young people should be at the heart of further work.
- We would identify young people who could work with us through a process from initial research and design, through to opportunity creation and delivery.
- We wanted to work with young people who had negative experiences of being active, who were already less likely to take part outside of PE and who were at the greatest risk of drop out.
- We would work with schools to help us identify suitable participants.
- We would focus on Y9 and Y10 students (13-15) - an age where disillusionment had begun but where it was not so engrained as to be irreversible.
- Where possible, we would work with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are typically more likely to disengage from being active.
It was discussed that the approach would need to feel different to other projects or activities the young people might have taken part in and that it was key for them to feel listened to at every stage. We would also need to be creative in the questions we asked and the way we supported our audience to avoid re-discovering the same general barriers seen time and again in research on this topic (e.g., cost, lack of transport and lack of opportunities).
It was decided to follow a multi-step co-creation process, working with targeted groups of young people to explore their relationship with sport and physical activity in detail. It was important that this was a process, rather than simply asking the young people what activity would get them more active, to ensure both we and the young people were able to fully understand the complexity of their past experiences and what this meant for the future.
As we move through our lives, we are influenced by everything we see, hear and experience and many of our feelings and behaviours are shaped by sub-conscious processes which bring together a combination of those influences. We wanted to get under the skin of this, such that when the young people came to design opportunities for themselves, their thinking would be focused on what would meet their emotional needs and not just seek to resolve practical challenges.
A further element which continues to be vital throughout the work is capacity building. LA officers have been involved in every aspect of the work and are increasingly leading the process. The aim is that learning is embedded locally and can be built on in the future.
Phase 2 Key Findings – Co-creation
Whilst there were brief mentions of the typical barriers, such as cost, which we often hear keep people from taking part in sport, the approach has enabled us to dig much deeper and gain a much richer understanding of what lies at the heart of decisions around being active or not.
One aspect of the findings which stood out across all groups and all tasks, was the desire amongst the young people to belong. They are looking for spaces and opportunities which feel specifically for them, where they can be themselves and spend time with their friends.
The second related theme observed consistently throughout the sessions was a desire for calm and relaxation. The young people are seeking a sanctuary from everyday stresses as they navigate their changing lives. Whilst on the face of it, this may feel straightforward, we should be careful not to impose adult values onto the young people. Their interpretation of what calm and relaxing looks like may be very different to ours, for example, it may need to incorporate their parallel desire for fun.
A huge amount has been gained from this process, in terms of understanding the past experiences of the young people involved and how this has shaped their current relationship with sport and physical activity. This serves to highlight the value of continued audience engagement and involving target communities in meeting their own needs.
Young People’s Lives
Our young people had a wide range of interests and priorities, as we might expect, including watching TV/streaming services, relaxing/sleeping and a variety of leisure activities. Technology was a feature, particularly social media, with universal recognition of both the benefits and pitfalls. Time alone is seen as important, however, the majority prioritise their friends, and time with friends, above all else.
There is a strong sense amongst the young people who took part that life feels chaotic and pressured and they find themselves craving quiet time and calm spaces. School is universally disliked and seen as a particularly stressful environment. For girls, a major source of stress comes from boys, who are seen as immature, judgemental, and unkind.
Young people’s perceptions of Sport and Physical Activity
Most of the young people engage in some sort of active pursuit, however, this was likely to be a leisure activity, such as walking, rather than a traditional sport activity.
When asked what counted as being active the young people provided a fairly narrow view, mainly citing traditional school sports or fitness activities. They rarely mentioned the physical activities that they engaged in themselves, although on prompting, they saw that these could be included.
The young people did not see themselves as ‘sporty’. To them, sporty people are ‘skinny’ and ‘ripped’ and are more confident than them (both in sport and in life). There was a consistent undertone that sport is only for those who are good at it and is not for people like them.
They saw the purpose of being active as largely functional, for health, fitness and weight loss. On prompting, they did acknowledge some of the wider benefits, including the social opportunity; however, almost no one made reference to being active purely for the enjoyment. Most had mixed feelings when it came to being active themselves.
Many had previous bad experiences or focused on the physical exertion, however, there was also recognition of some of the positive feelings being active can bring about. For example, ‘happy hormones’ or a sense of pride. All the young people spoke about sport and physical activity being better when they were younger, when it was seen as more fun and less pressured.
What makes a positive experience for young people?
To understand what could potentially make a great sporting experience for these young people, the approach sought to understand what represents a great experience for them more generally. There was a strong sense that the young people feel there is a lack of spaces that are truly for them, their friends and other people their age. This is perhaps, in part, because our cohort are in transition; no longer children, when they were happy in playgrounds, or being taken to places by their parents, but not yet fully independent adults, with the range of opportunities that presents.
In terms of what they wanted from an ideal experience, there were of course individual differences, however, a number of consistent themes emerged. These are set out in the figure below.
Features of a great environment
Calm, relaxing spaces
- A break from the chaos of life
- Comfortable, quiet, cosy, bright, attractive
Somewhere to be with friends
- A chance to spend time around people you feel comfortable with
- A private space for your group
Something to do
- Fun activities you can do together.
- Positive vibes, feels good taking part, never boring.
- People there are friendly, supportive and kind.
- You feel like you can be yourself.
Safe & Secure
- Feel physically safe with no sense of danger.
- Feel emotionally safe as no one is trying to catch you out or make you feel bad.
- Little extras to make it a bit special - food, drinks, music, charging points
- Everything is taken care of
Top Tips for a great environment
- The session leader – the right person is critical and the role for this person needs to be agreed up front.
- The purpose, vibe and tone of the session – including language to ensure that everyone feels they belong.
- Creating a sense of calm, but with an atmosphere of fun where everyone is included.
- A focus on the more immediate benefits of being active, such as enjoyment, and feeling better, rather than long-term benefits such as health, which feel intangible and make being active feel like a chore.
- Allowing for social interaction and time with friends.
- The appropriate level of competition to bring an element of challenge and gamification, but without giving favour to those who are most skilful.
- A sense of choice and equity about what is delivered.
The young people in this pilot are at a critical point in their physical activity journey. Whilst few of them would be considered physical activity advocates, none have yet ruled it out as something not for them. The majority still hold positive childhood memories of a time when sport was carefree and unpressured, and many still consider some forms of movement enjoyable.
This programme provides an opportunity to offer something for these young people which feels truly for them and rebuild the confidence they have lost being in an active environment. Notably, they prefer physical activities such as walking, dance, and dodgeball than more mainstream sports such as netball or running.
Whilst there were brief mentions of frequently cited barriers to physical activity, such as cost, it is clear that, for these young people, the experience of being active is central to the decision about whether to take part. They are looking for spaces and opportunities where they can be themselves and spend time with their friends. They are also seeking sanctuary from everyday stresses as they navigate their changing lives.
Whilst on the face of it, this may feel straightforward, we should be careful not to impose adult values onto young people. Their interpretation of what a good experience looks like may be very different to those of adults, and so co-creation of opportunities with young people should be seen as a critical element of future work.