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Why we must do everything we can to help children return to volunteering

Our latest Active Lives Children and Young People Survey report shows how opportunities to volunteer have been hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

9th December 2021

by Kristen Natale
Head of volunteering, Sport England

This morning, we published our latest Active Lives Children and Young People Survey report.

Covering the 2020-21 academic year, the report gives the most detailed picture yet of the impact coronavirus (Covid-19) had on young people’s relationship with sport and physical activity during the worst months of the pandemic.

The report also shows that, with many activities unavailable for large periods of the year, children and young people’s volunteering levels have decreased significantly during the pandemic – continuing a pre-pandemic trend of decreasing volunteering levels, as evidenced by the National Youth Social Action Survey from 2019.

Volunteering football coach running drills

Our new report shows that across 2020-21, 1.1million (24%) of those aged 9-16 had volunteered at least twice in the last 12 months.

This is a decline of 12.1%, or just over half a million children and young people, compared to the previous reporting period.

Furthermore, we’ve seen disproportionately larger drops in the proportion of volunteers doing roles such as sports leader and ambassador and, for older children, refereeing, umpiring, stewarding and marshalling.

We know that most children and young people get involved in volunteering through school, college, or university and the disruption caused to education by the pandemic has clearly impacted the ability for them to take part.

School can be an important route to access volunteering for younger age groups, like primary school age children, as we know there are fewer opportunities out in the community for this age group and they may require support or to be accompanied by an adult to volunteer.

We should acknowledge, though, the numbers of children and young people who have still volunteered during this period.

Whether it be Leonard Cheshire volunteers inspiring others to be active at home, or Wave Rangers getting active outdoors with things like beach cleans, we know young people have continued to volunteer and we thank them.

So why does this matter?

Young people can experience a range of benefits from volunteering in sport and physical activity.

The national evaluation of our Volunteering Fund showed young volunteers reported significant improvements across a range of wellbeing measures, including their satisfaction with life and happiness.

They also experienced a positive impact on their confidence and resilience, and it can be a way for them to have fun, make new friends and interact with new and different young people they may not usually meet.

This is important when considering figures from the Office for National Statistics’ young people’s wellbeing survey last year showed increased levels of anxiety and depression in young women aged 16-24.

But not only does volunteering have a positive impact on young people's wellbeing and individual development, it's also a valuable way in which they can support others and the wider community and make a difference to a cause they believe in.

This can be really empowering for young people and by volunteering to help others get active they can play a role in creating a friendly and fun environment for others to be active.

This can be helping getting activities set up to leading and running activities or playing a role a sports leader or ambassador.

Volunteering can be a way for children and young people to have fun, make new friends and interact with new and different young people they may not usually meet.

Evidence also shows that getting young people involved in volunteering early means young people are more likely to continue to volunteer later in life.

Helping children and young people return to volunteering will be a priority for us as we emerge from the pandemic and will be an important part of our long-term strategy Uniting the Movement.

We know the single biggest driver of activity for young people is enjoyment, but too often the current system doesn’t deliver this.

As we consider how sport and physical activity is delivered, we also need to re-imagine what volunteering could look like.

This will help to enhance the experience for young volunteers, to re-engage existing young volunteers and to attract young people who may not see volunteering as something for them.

The learning from our Volunteering Fund projects highlighted the importance of the co-design of volunteering opportunities and ensuring they’re youth-led.

We will need to listen more to children and young people and involve them in decision-making to create the type of experiences young people want.

By embracing youth voice and allowing young people to have a say in shaping sport and physical activity and volunteering, we can help make opportunities more relevant and more fun.

More importantly, through volunteering we can enable young people to be part of this change.

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