A children’s activity crisis that worsened during the Covid-19 lockdown will be tackled with more than 120 new junior parkruns across the country following an unprecedented £1.19 million cash injection from the London Marathon.
Parkrun and the London Marathon are two of the nation’s most popular mass participation running events and they have agreed a major new partnership that is set to more than double the number of children who complete the free weekly 2km event.
It follows research which shows that 53 per cent of children do not meet the chief medical officer’s guidance of at least 60 minutes activity daily, and that junior parkrun participation has still not fully recovered from being forced to shut between March 2020 and April 2021.
A high of 16,500 children finished events up and down the country in 2019 compared to an average now of 14,000. The new initiative will target parkrun opportunities in deprived areas, where activity levels are typically lower, and the aim until 2026 is for more than 300,000 children to participate in the community Sunday morning event.
Despite being outdoors and thus posing a limited risk of Covid transmission, parkrun had to wait well over a year to return following the first national lockdown and there was briefly even doubt over its entire future.
The 5km Saturday and 2km Sunday morning free gatherings remain hugely popular and, although overall activity levels are now back to their pre-pandemic levels, primary school children, specifically those aged between seven and nine, are not yet back to their previous rates.
Inspiring children’s activity has long been a key priority for the London Marathon Group and junior parkrun’s biggest ever cash injection follows their outreach programme in schools and the establishment of the mini London Marathon that now takes place for young people on the day before the main 26.2 mile event. “With the impacts of the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis affecting access to activity, more fun, free and accessible activities for children are desperately needed,” said Catherine Anderson, the executive director of the London Marathon Foundation.
Chrissie Wellington, the unbeaten four-times world Ironman champion, who is now parkrun’s head of health and wellbeing, said that they were still only “scratching the surface” with what parkrun could achieve for the nation’s health and wellbeing. “It’s vital that we create zero-cost opportunities for children to be more active, to be outdoors and to have fun together,” she said.
“Not only that, there is immense power in providing people of all ages with the chance to volunteer, to socialise and to feel part of their local community. Junior parkrun changes lives. It can have an incredible impact on hundreds of thousands of children, families and whole communities.”
The announcement follows the first meeting this week of a government taskforce, which includes Daley Thompson and Jill Scott and aims to get one million more children active by 2030.
Tim Hollingsworth, the chief executive of Sport England, whose research has revealed the inactivity challenge, said that healthy habits formed in childhood could last a lifetime and hailed the mass expansion of junior parkrun as a “hugely welcome” step. “More children and young people will have access to the free and fun opportunities that parkrun presents every weekend,” he said.
Huw Edwards, the chief executive of ukactive, which represents leisure operators, said that a prize in transforming activity levels was massive savings for the stressed National Health Service. “If the Government supports us with the growth and development of the sector, including through regulatory and tax reforms and further investment in innovative programmes, we can play a major role in reducing NHS waiting lists and boosting the economy by improving the health and productivity of the workforce,” he said.