There's a skipping fever taking hold at Gaelscoil Uí Riada in Wilton, Cork.
Twelve-year-old Maria Barry Murphy from sixth class, second cousin of GAA legend Jimmy, is decked out in her full Cork kit, but instead of showing off camogie or football skills, she’s demonstrating “the pretzel,” a perilous-looking one-legged form of skipping.
Molly Nic Dáibheid, 11 and in fifth class, says skipping is “a great activity that’s really good for your health”.
Molly quickly corrals some younger girls to show off another variation: the girls intertwine their ropes and skip in sync, an impressive display of co-ordination and teamwork.
From infants up to sixth class, children at the primary gaelscoil are grabbing ropes during yard time and learning skills that were once a common sight amongst Irish children at play.
The alarming fact that one in five Irish children are now obese or overweight really gives pause for thought about the sedentary lifestyles we’ve created for children.
In 1975, only 1% of Irish schoolchildren were obese, and lifestyle factors including diet and access to exercise are to blame.
In 1981, 50% of schoolchildren walked to school daily; by 2014, this figure had halved to 25%.
Sedentary car commutes are one thing, but primary teachers are also reporting increasing levels of co-ordination and spatial awareness developmental delays in children who spend hours on TV and computer screens instead of in physical play.
Four out of five Irish children aren’t meeting their need for 60 minutes of physical exercise each day, and 34% of Irish pre-schoolers have a TV in their bedroom, according to Safefood.ie.
Gaelscoil Uí Ríada’s principal, Breanndán Ó Gréilligh, (below) explains that the skipping craze currently doing the rounds at his school is supported and encouraged: they’ve even enlisted the help of a UK skipping expert to give a day-long workshop to the kids, with excellent results.
Skipping burns 25% more calories per minute than running: 15 minutes on the rope sheds between 200-300 calories.
It’s such a well-documented exercise that the Irish Heart Foundation has been holding an annual Skipathon for schools since the 1980s, where schools sign up for a day of skipping games and challenges.
But fitness is only a part of the holistic benefits children can benefit from, the headmaster says.
“It’s part of our overall policy for mental and physical wellbeing in the school, what we call ‘Folláine’,” Mr Ó Gréilligh says.
“We’re looking for activities the kids will be interested in that will be healthy, cheap to run and social, and skipping really ticks all those boxes for us.
"It’s a safe thing to do in the yard that needs limited space, and they can do it in pairs or big groups, or alone if they’d prefer.”
Following a day-long workshop with John Burn, AKA Skippy John, the head coach with UK educational company Skipping 4 Life and a former competitor on BBC1’s Total Wipeout, Gaelscoil Uí Ríada bought a stock of both short ropes for individual use and long ropes, for skipping games in groups.
Mr Ó Gréilligh says skipping is a great leveller, suited for all ages and abilities in the school.
“The younger kids watch the older kids in the yard and try to improve,” he says. “Kids with special needs can benefit too, because it’s fantastic for hand-eye co-ordination and balance.”
Skipping was an extremely common sight amongst children at play in previous generations.
Play, for children, is a serious business: not only are they exercising and developing physical orientation skills, they’re also practicing vital inter-personal, memory and musical skills.
Skipping has traditionally come with rhymes to be chanted, and group skipping activities require complex negotiations: who will partner whom?
Can an entire group keep rhythm and skip in unison?
Mr Ó Gréilligh says all these benefits are plainly visible in children in his school; as well as an unstructured play activity in the yard, it’s also used as a warm-up in PE classes.
Rhymes in Gaelscoil Uí Ríada are in Irish, adding a linguistic perk to the mix.
There’s one big change from the old days: skipping used to very much be seen as a girls’ activity, while now, the gender division has been broken and boys are benefiting too.
The awareness of skipping as a cardiovascular exercise favoured by sporting heroes, is part of this shift, Mr Ó Gréilligh believes.
“There are the Conor McGregors and the boxers doing skipping, so now it’s associated with a male activity too,” Mr Ó Gréilligh said.
“Skippy John can make it quite competitive as well, and very much about the challenge. When they skip on the long rope, it becomes about keeping the whole thing going which adds a different element.”
Twelve-year-old Ciarán De Barra from sixth class agrees.
“I play tennis with Bishopstown Lawn Tennis Club, so I do it for the warm-ups,” he says.
Gavin Cassidy from fifth class is certifiably sports-mad: his pastimes include football, rugby, hurling, Gaelic football and swimming. He bought a skipping rope for use at home.
An impressive number of children at the Wilton school said skipping is now a favourite activity at home as well.
And they’re even making the past-time go multi-generational.
Ten-year-old Culann Ó Riada says he “never skipped before, and I thought it would be much harder,” but he, too, now skips at home.
His little brother Finn, who is in 1st class, has been teaching their nana.
And how’s Nana Patsy getting on? Culann frowns, and says, “Well, she can do it, but she can’t do tricks or anything.”
Skipathon funds raised by schools go towards Irish Heart Foundation schools programmes. To register and receive a free resource pack including ropes, visit www.irishheart.ie/skipathon