Well!Kids programme a huge success

Well!Kids programme a huge success for Waterford GAA

By John Harrington

The success of Waterford GAA’s Well!Kids Nursery programme brings to mind the old Irish proverb ‘Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí – Praise the youth and they will flourish’.

What began as a pilot programme involving nine clubs in 2021 now involves all 36 juvenile clubs in the county running nursery sessions for 4-6 year olds on Saturday mornings.

The central premise of the programme is fun for everyone involved, and the its rapid growth is a testament to how popular it is.

Not only has it gotten more kids playing Gaelic games in their local club, it has also been a great recruiting tool for new coaches who quickly see the benefit of getting involved too along with their children.

“I’m involved with Waterford GAA since 2015 and it’s by far and away the most enjoyable initiative we’ve seen and the one we’ve gotten the most benefit out of,” says Waterford GAA’s acting County Head of Games Development, Barry Dunne.

“It’s getting so many so many new kids and new coaches involved so it’s been great.

“The name ‘Well!Kids’ works on a few different levels. ‘Well’ is a way that people say hello to each other down here but also then it’s about building up a well of players and coaches for the club.

“Because not only are more kids getting involved with the local club, so too are new parents who may not have had any history of playing GAA.

“Once see the way that the sessions were being ran and that they were very accessible and very open, they say, ‘ok, I can help out here too’.

“Most kids who might come along to these nurseries are first timers who have never paid GAA before so it’s a gentle introduction to GAA really rather than going straight into helmets and hurleys and all that.

“At each session clubs would have a football station, a hurling station and then a fun games and exercise station.

“But even within the football and hurling it’s all throwing and catching, fundamental movements, just kids doing dodging, evasion, all that type of stuff.”

A young Mount Sion GAA club member enjoying the Well!Kids programme. Photograph by Noel Browne. 

A young Mount Sion GAA club member enjoying the Well!Kids programme. Photograph by Noel Browne.

The focus on fun games and fundamental movement is a clever way of filling a void left by societal change.

Young children tend not to be given the latitude as much to visit their friends on an ad hoc basis outside of school hours as in times past, and so don’t get as many opportunities for unstructured play as previous generations did.

Studies have shown that unstructured play and games involving fundamental movement skills are key to children developing speed, agility, and quickness abilities which in turn help them to avoid injury when playing sport.

That’s why its essential that the nursery programmes of GAA clubs should focus on the building blocks of fundamental movements, but do it in as fun a way as possible so that children are engaged.

“That’s probably one thing that we’ve all seen change in the last 20/30 years, and I don’t think it’s kind of looking back with rose tinted glasses nor like that, but play-time for kids nowadays is much more structured,” says Dunne.

“As in they go to school there’s probably certain games that they can and can’t play or they may not be allowed to run in a playground.

“It’s slightly different than it was in previous generations and quite often now parents are not as inclined for their kids to just ramble down the road off to a neighbour’s house to go playing.

“This is kind of like a throwback to that where for an hour or an hour and a half on a Saturday morning they just get to basically be kids. We’d be trying to put a bit of structure on the thing some mornings. But particularly the younger age-groups sometimes just do what they want and you have to go with it.

Young Passage GAA club members enjoying the 'Well!Kids' programme. Photograph by Noel Browne. 

Young Passage GAA club members enjoying the ‘Well!Kids’ programme. Photograph by Noel Browne.

“That’s why we feel it’s really important to have the fun games and the fundamental movements station. That it’s not just hurling our football.

“That at minimum a third of the session is given over to free play fun, chase games, snowball fights, this type of stuff. That’s nearly the part of the session that age-group enjoys the most, the fun game side of it.

“We designed a book of 80 resources that we’ve given to club which includes all the drills for new coaches so they can hand them the pages and way they go.

“But when we designed everything and put together the session plans the absolute number one most important thing was fun and enjoyment. Because if the child is enjoying it and having having a bit of craic with their friends, they’re just far more likely to come back and get into the routine of a Saturday morning spent at the GAA club.

“My young lad Darragh knows every Saturday morning that’s when the club nursery is on and he’ll be all excited about it for the week. It’s building it into the schedule for the parents and something to look forward to each week for the child.”

Children pictured enjoying the Mount Sion Well!Kids programme. Photograph by Noel Browne.

Children pictured enjoying the Mount Sion Well!Kids programme. Photograph by Noel Browne.

Dunne has seen at first-hand the positive impact the Well!Kids programme has had on his own club Clashhmore/Kinsalebeg, and the feedback from all the other clubs who have taken part has been similarly encouraging.

Not only has it brought more children and coaches into the clubs, it has put the clubs themselves even more so at the heart of their local community than they already were.

“Even though I’m heavily involved with my own club and community, very often new children will arrive on a Saturday to a session and I would have no idea who they are or who their parents are, but they’re actually new to the area and saw fliers for it and decided to get involved.

“It’s been brilliant like that to get involved people you might not know or know are in your parish or your community but were previously not involved.

“Towards the end of last year was we ran a family day for parents and grandparents. My wife is from Cork, so her mom and dad came down from Whitechurch in Cork to see my young lads go to the nursery.

“It made for a great family day for the community and brought loads of sides of families together and people so there was a great buzz around that morning in the club.

“Other clubs are doing loads of different little ideas like that. Sometimes they have the parents against the kids in tug of war and that sort of thing. They’re kind of going in their own direction with it too which is great.”

A young Passage GAA club member pictured enjoying the Well!Kids programme. 

A young Passage GAA club member pictured enjoying the Well!Kids programme.

So successful has the Well!Kids programme been in a short period of time that Waterford GAA hope to expand it at club level and also introduce it to schools in the coming years.

“At the end of each year we’ve sent surveys out to each club just to make sure that that they see the benefit of it, that they are getting more players and getting more coaches out of it,” says Dunne.

“Every club we would have surveyed in the last year would have come back to say that they were looking forward to engaging with it again.

“It might not necessarily be an increase in numbers across the board, but the vast, vast majority of clubs have said that they’ve seen an increase in their numbers in players and coaches which I think is massive because it’s that bit harder maybe to get people to volunteer and to get involved with the club at times.

“Whereas at least if people get involved with something that’s enjoyable and regular, they’re more inclined to stay around it in the long term.

“Each year we’re trying to figure out how can we develop it on so we’ve given additional drills and resources to clubs each year. We’ve given additional equipment as well.

“We gave each club an equipment pack worth around €250 which was sourced from sponsorship and the county board.

“We provide training for any new coaches that are involved in each club, because each year there are maybe three or four or five new coaches getting involved for the coming year who may not have any experience and they just kind of want to know what’s involved.

“Ultimately, I can see us moving it on to some slightly older age groups, so that we’d have something in place for four to six year olds and then probably the next piece would be to do something similar but maybe a little bit more advanced for seven to nine year olds.

“We’d also like to roll out something to the schools and engage with them so that Well!Kids isn’t just a club-based thing, but also a schools based thing. They’ll be the next steps for us down the line.”