19 August 2014
Tuesday 19 August
“Sometimes it’s the small conversations that are so important” says Tim Saunders, Senior Youth Worker at Alford House youth club in Kennington, South London. “It’s only when the young people are relaxed, and have built an amount of trust in you that they will begin to tell you about the things that are really important to them. That’s why giving the chance to play sport, or get involved in some kind of outdoor or physical activity is so important – to their health, their wellbeing and their lives.”
Like many youth workers across London, Tim sees every day the challenges young people face – in terms of their wellbeing, the stresses and pressures on their lives – as well, of course, as the potential and opportunity that young people have. Building trusting relationships with those young people, to give them the confidence, resilience and strengthened networks to be able to take on the challenges, and take advantage of the opportunities, is Tim’s guiding principle.
Sport has always played a central part in this. London Youth provides opportunities for thousands of young people each year to learn and develop through our Getting Ready sports development programme, delivered in 100 youth clubs across the capital. What makes our programme effective is that it is offered in a community space where young people gather voluntarily; and that the young people themselves can set the agenda, choosing the sport they would like to try, and making their own commitment to get involved.
And there is no doubt that engaging young people in sport has obvious health benefits, particularly so for those who are not confident or happy within school, or not taking part in PE lessons, or simply those who can’t afford sports clubs.
But, essential though physical exercise is, we recognise that young people’s health needs – and public health needs more generally – are about more than sport and fitness. Youth workers report increasing challenges of mental health, depression, fear of failure, and rapidly changing technology driven pressures – such as cyber bullying and ‘sexting’ – all of which young people are grappling with.
Our learning from delivering Getting Ready is that youth clubs can be spaces in which young people can also be supported to address their broader health and well-being needs.
In this context there are a whole range of possibilities, which we believe can genuinely help London become healthier and happier. For example, the co-location of health and wellbeing services in youth clubs – some clubs such as the MyPlace centre in Harold Hill and TNG in Sydenham already do this, with health workers providing sexual and other health services to young people in spaces where they congregate and feel comfortable.
We’d like more health services to partner with youth clubs across the capital. Beyond this, there are other opportunities for stronger partnerships locally: public health boards should actively involve youth club leaders like Tim and of course, young people. This in turn should lead to stronger local funding strategies for public health which include youth organisations and thereby ensure that services are more accessible to more young people.
The overriding principle is that public health can be improved by delivering services in open access places that young people choose to go. If we get this right, it should open up possibilities for complimentary and joined-up programmes. We’ve seen this work at the Attlee Youth & Community Centre in Tower Hamlets, where we used Getting Ready to engage young Muslim women in sport, and from there extended the support to include healthy eating for them and their families.
Facilitating conversations through sport is one of the key ways that Tim helps the young people at Alford House improve their health and wellbeing. But actually it is as much about the environment in which the sport is taking place, as the sport itself.
If we really want a healthier London for young people, we need to think creatively about where and how we locate services, create partnerships and fundamentally use the assets of youth workers, young people and youth clubs to sustain healthier lives for everyone. Crucially, we must meet young people where they are at so that we can help them to get to where they want to be.