Class is in session

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Ryan Moore (Getty Images)

“You sometimes knock yourself on the head and ask, ‘Why didn’t we think of this earlier?'”

Jeff Thompson is seated by an electric fireplace near the entrance of the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame, reflecting upon the genesis and subsequent success of the National Golf in Schools program.  It’s a crisp, cloudless February afternoon, but Golf Canada’s Chief Sport Officer finds himself inching away from the heat being thrown off next to him.

Of course, if Thompson is feeling a little warm and fuzzy at the moment, he has every right.  The National Golf in Schools (NGIS) program- launched at the elementary school level in May 2009, for Grades 9-12 in 2012, and then bridging the gap with Grades 7-8 beginning in May-has been embraced by almost 2,600 schools nationwide, exposing more than 306,000 children to the sport annually.  That number is steadily growing with the addition of 300 to 400 schools per year.

The potential is staggering, with nearly 6.5 million students enrolled at 10,000 elementary and 4,500 high schools, but there is cause for concern.  Physical education classes across the land are gradually diminishing due to budget restrictions-this despite the fact that the 2014 Active Healthy Kids Canada report indicated that a mere seven per cent of Canadian kids aged five to 11 are active enough to meet Canada’s basic daily physical-activity guidelines-and despite the fact that a mountain of scientific research screams the physiological, sociological and scholastic benefits of athletic participation in school.  Among the more recent studies was a University of Illinois report released last August that linked physical exercise with stronger brain activity in children.  Findings published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience indicated that aerobically fit 9- and 10-year-olds have denser regions of ‘white matter’ in their brains, enhancing their ability to pay attention, reason and retain memories.

Consequently, anything that helps gym class remain a staple of the curriculum is invaluable, and Golf Canada did its homework in preparing NGIS.

“It was in 2006, during the time when we were developing the Long-Term Player Development guide,” Thompson recalls.  “Part of the process was looking at gaps in our sport, and one of the things that came up was the absence of golf in our school curriculum.  There were some ad hoc situations, where teachers who played golf had introduced it to the school, but there was nothing developed to be delivered by teachers.”

Extensive research included the First Tee program, which had just been launched in the U. S. “At that time, they were using golf pros to go into schools to instruct it, or teachers who had to participate in multi-day training to deliver the program,” says Thompson.  “We really felt there were teachers delivering all sorts of other sports in schools without specific training, so how was golf that much different?

“When we talked to Physical Health Education Canada, they noted what schools and teachers are concerned with is delivering learning outcomes for specific grades. For example, they won’t allow any program for Grade 3 unless it delivers on balancing, striking skills and coordination.  We built our curriculum based on those requirements.  The object was not to develop competitive golfers, but to get kids exposed to the game so that they might go home to their parents and say, ‘Hey, we’re doing golf at school this week and I really like it.  I want to go to the range.'”


Golf Canada was a trailblazer in this regard, says Chris Jones, Executive Director and CEO of Physical and Health Education Canada (PHE Canada) in Ottawa, which develops physical and health education programs and resources for Canadian teachers.  “The national sport organizations have increasingly come to us in the way golf did, seeing it as a way to expose kids to their sport-that if you adapt it correctly and make it relevant and straightforward to implement, the kids can develop an awareness of the sport and perhaps move over to a complementary program, such as CN Future Links in the case of golf.”

As with all such proposals, the NGIS program had to meet stringent criteria in order for PHE Canada’s board to grant its approval.  It had to be pedagogically sound, user-friendly, comprehensive and relevant.  And for Golf Canada, they are looking for a relationship to Sport Canada’s Long-Term Athlete Development model, which identifies specific training to be addressed at different stages of a youth’s development.

While many see golf as a relatively static sport, the design of NGIS lessons keeps kids on the move-indoors or out-with multiple stations, complementary activities (such as Frisbee throwing to help teach youngsters how to align to a target), as well as warm-up drills and stretching exercises targeting the golf-specific task that day.

Provincial golf associations also play a key role in enhancing the program by off ering a variety of Golf in School “activations,” such as sending golf pros to the schools and inviting classes to golf facilities.

“Three criteria that were also instrumental in our choice to accept Golf in Schools were that we saw it was a sport you can play for life, that it has a fitness dimension in walking the course, and that there’s the social dimension,” says Jones.  “These are the kinds of things we try to promote in our current programs.  We want kids to have fun, to socialize and to learn some athletic and motor and movement skills aspect of etiquette that golf includes is just an added benefit.”

That latter element is being harnessed as a school recruitment tool.  “We just partnered with the University of Ottawa to develop a life-skills, core-values component that will be integrated into Golf in Schools beginning this May, including the idea of sportsmanship, honesty, integrity and perseverance,” says Thompson.  “For the schools that ask, ‘Why is this better than teaching them basketball?’  We will have this research to sell them on it.  I think that will be a game-changer.”

P.E.I. Provincial Golf Coach Dallas Desjardins is among the PGA Of Canada members already on the front lines. “A lot of our discussions when we go into schools are about the values that golf instills,” he says. “I don’t market is as ‘Come play golf.’  I market it as ‘Get your kid involved in golf so that they’re building relationships and are exposed to a social network and not stuck at a computer.'”

How well has the program been received?  “The average time period that golf is being delivered in a school is 3.4 weeks, which is above the norm of typical sports in the curriculum,” Thompson observes.  “And 100 per cent of teachers surveyed found their students were responsive to the NGIS program, with 95 per cent noting the program was easy to implement.”

Why isn’t everyone jumping on board?  Financial restraints, for many, although the cost is reasonable: $475 for the resource manual and 177-piece elementary school set, which includes hard plastic clubs and foam balls, and $795 for the high school kit, which includes real clubs.

Golf Canada’s Adopt a School program enables golf facilities, companies or individuals to sponsor the NGIS program at a local school while getting a tax receipt in return.  “Of the schools we get each year, about 60 per cent are adoptions,” says Thompson.

Additional support will help foster the program’s penetration into the Canadian school system, which will lay the groundwork for future golfers.  At a societal level, it will help keep young bodies active, but, unlike any other sport in Canadian physical education, it may also be intrinsically suited to shape minds for the better.

Class is in session

This article was originally published in the April 2015 edition of Golf Canada Magazine. To view the full magazine, click the image to the left.