A Brixton-based Black-led charity working with young people has seen a big rise in participation in its American Football programme since lockdown ended in April.
Around 100 young people in six south London boroughs take part in BigKid’s NFL Flag sessions each – compared to around 25 young people in two boroughs before the pandemic.
Flag football is a version of NFL American Football but without the physical contact – rather like touch rugby that is played in many PE lessons.
It is one part of BigKid’s Breaking Barriers programme for schools, which also provides mentoring and other support for young people at risk of school exclusion.
BigKid recently took over the long-disused Dexter’s adventure playground on Railton Road.
Its outreach officer Jonathan Cobham said: “During the lockdown young people were stuck at home just like everyone else.
“They weren’t developing the skills that make for good mental health and many were feeling a sense of anguish.
“Many felt anxious when they returned to school in March because they had lost a lot of the social skills we take for granted by using them every day.
“After coming to our football flag sessions, a lot of our young people felt more confident and more confident about managing their mental health.
“Flag football teaches young people about teamwork, leadership, fitness and communication skills.
“It is a great sport and it’s a shame that in many ways it’s a hidden gem as many young people don’t know about it.”
The wider Breaker Barriers programme delivered by BigKid is aimed at Year 9 pupils at risk of school exclusion and seeks to improve their self-esteem and behaviour.
However, children and young people of any age can take part in Flag football if their school has signed up.
The initiative is part-funded by the Mayor of London’s office.
Schools in Lambeth, Lewisham, Croydon, Barnet, Ealing and Hounslow are participating in the Flag programme at present.
Steve Verrall, head coach of the South London Renegades, said: “The BigKid Flag football programme has been a massive help in promoting the sport of American Football in London.
“The sessions are fun and engaging for young people. They provide a gateway for young people to try out a new sport with different skill sets from more traditional British sports.
“It is great to see that girls have been major participants from the start and are a match for the boys in games.
“Several young people who started in BigKid Flag have gone on to take up full contact American Football bringing some outstanding new athletes to the game.”
Recently published research commissioned by the NFL on the impact of BigKid’s Flag football programme confirmed the health benefits for participants.
A survey of 206 young people linked to the charity found that participants in the programme were 40% more likely to report at least one hour’s non-school physical activity per day than non-participants.
They typically spent 76% more time engaged in physical activity than BigKid members who did not participate in the Flag football programme.
The research report says: “We confidently attribute the significant and positive effect on participants achieving the British Heart Foundation’s recommendation of engaging in at least one hour of moderate or vigorous physical activity per day to NFL Flag.”
BIGKID founder and chief executive Shaninga Marasha said: “It’s become a truism that, in many ways, children and young people have suffered most during the pandemic – and particularly during lockdown.
“School closures, uncertainty and being cut off from friends and social and sporting events have hit hardest those living in deprived communities, as they are most likely to be living in over-crowded housing and have little access to green space.
“As we ‘build back better’ after the pandemic we must make sure that we provide every child and young person with the chance to take part – a full part – in school life and in social and sporting events with their friends.”