23 May 2022

Sideline View: A whole new ball game at County Derry School

Each family was given a new football each for the summer

Sideline View: A whole new ball game at County Derry School

Every family will be given a new ball to take home.

The heap of brand new balls outside Michael O'Kane's office was a brilliant sight.

Two hundred of them. Each just out of the packet. Pumped to perfection. Gleaming. Asking to be kicked. Asking to be plucked out of the clouds.

St Colmcille's Primary School Claudy was a hive of excitement last Friday afternoon. The playground was awash with colour, heaving with activity and the noise of laughter filled the air.

This is what we missed most. Laughter. Movement. Smiling faces. Things we will never take for granted again.

A fun sports day is in full flow, to mark the last day for the Primary 7 class, as they move on to the big school. To pastures new.

For everyone else, Wednesday is their last day as the excitement of summer takes hold. When they return in September, joined by new cohort in Primary 1, it will mark a new beginning in St Colmcille's.

A new school year and the hope of seeing the Covid lockdown in the rear-view mirror for the last time. They will also experience a new theme to their lives, as the school's Sport Academy swings into action.

Five hours of active goodness, enveloped into a school week. Learning the fundamentals of spelling, grammar and arthrimetic, will be mirrored with a range of sports. Team and individual.

“Like most ideas here in the last while, it started with Michael,” outlined Quintin O'Kane, Chairman of the Board of Governors.

Their Principal, a former goalkeeper and IT professional, has brought an air of enthusiasm.

The lockdown got him thinking. What does a school need most when the school bell summons pupils from months of nothing, back to normal. Sport. And as much as you can gather from as wide a range as you can reach.

A survey of his staff told him of the rich range of talent and sporting nous the school had within its environs.

The school's PE Coordinator Darragh McCloskey is sport to the core. His Banagher tracksuit bottoms with his Claudy school top is a compromise he jokes. You never forget your roots and it makes for fun and craic in class.

“Our staff has a wealth of sporting experience,” O'Kane pointed out.

Handball, Gaelic football, cross country running, soccer, gymnastics, netball, basketball, swimming, hurling, camogie and martial arts.

Those are the sports that will be offered, catering for a range of abilities and merged into school life and outdoor learning.

You don't have be in the grounds of St Colmcille's too long before you realise what this can bring to a school environment. Yes, school is about learning and building an educational base to prepare children for second level study.

But, imagine a school that can offer children five hours of physical activity every week. It's a better pitch than any glossy brochure or PowerPoint slide can trumpet.

The 200 footballs will be gone by Wednesday afternoon to every house in the school family. The challenge is now for families to put them, and the other forms of sporting equipment, to use over the summer months.

Professor Siobhán O'Neill, a past pupil of the school, was one of the special guests at Friday's launch. As a champion of mental health, she is well-versed in what society needs.

“It is absolutely crucial that we get enough physical activity,” she endorsed of the World Health Organisation's recommendation of one hour of exercise every day.

It's not just for physical health, but it is tied in with the regulation of the emotions. It's a two-way street.

We can all learn something from Claudy's example and it would be heartening if other school leaders in the country rocked up at Michael O'Kane's door, looking for any takeaway lessons that can fit into their own environment.

The laughter and energy in the playground tells the full story of what we have missed. And also what we have turned into.

Lockdown brought a necessity for more technology on our doorstep. Zoom meetings. Zoom lessons. Zoom committee meetings. Zoom music lessons. Zoom everything.

It has its benefits, but in a world where technology, Netflix, and Roblox (some online game I'd never heard of this time last year) have become the new staples, we need to take a deep breath and step away.

I write about sport, so I am probably biased, but here goes. The return of sport has been simply brilliant. It is the single best thing about the end of lockdown.

Yes, it means we can go to watch games. But sport is about so much more than plotting how Derry can dent Donegal's hopes of Sam or what Gareth Southgate needs for England to bring football home.

Sport is more simple than that. It is in every small corner of society.

A few years back, we had a houseful of nieces and nephews over for a week during the summer. I packed a picnic, with as many bats, hurls, balls and outdoor toys as I could find. There were more people in the car than seats. If I was stopped by the cops, I'd have been taken to the cleaners, but I took my chances with a short drive to Slaughtneil.

We emptied the boot and with absolutely zero structure we concocted a cross between the Olympics, the Poc Fada and a school sports day, we spent a day that's stood the test of time. Campa Mal was born.

There were no medals, certificates or Instagram posts. Just a photo that pops up every now and again. “D'ya remember Campa Mal,” we'd joke.

The same can be said when we went on a similar jaunt up Eagle's Rock, a hidden gem in Moneyneena.

“D'ya remember the day we got kept on walking and nearly ended up in Feeny,” we'd occasionally mention. The inexpensive, healthy day of memories always brings a glow to the conversation.

These are the days we, as a society, value, yet have lost the most. Technology has killed it.

The 200 footballs that leave Claudy tomorrow...How much use they get over the summer will be a measuring stick of where society is.

There is a place for Netflix, Match of the Day and Roblox. But in moderation.

As I jumped into the car last Friday outside Claudy school, I thought of that one hour. As I write these words, I think of that same hour.

An hour of activity everyday that will add so much hidden value in the long run.

It's simple, yet it's a game-changer. Claudy has laid down a marker for the rest of us.

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