DUBAI // A lack of proper sports facilities and unfit games teachers are hampering efforts to get children into shape in government schools.
A study last year by the World Health Organisation found barely a quarter of schoolchildren in the UAE took part in any kind of physical activity, but half spent three or more hours at a time sitting down at school.
It also found more than 38 per cent of the children in Grades 8, 9 and 10 were overweight and 14 per cent were obese.
And it is getting worse at an alarming rate, said Dr Ali Al Marzouqi, the director of the Dubai Health Authority's (DHA) public health and safety department.
"A lot of effort needs to be put into not only ensuring children eat right, but looking at the amount of daily physical activity they are exposed to," Dr Al Marzouqi said.
Ahmad Abdul-Rahman, the project manager at the Princess Haya Initiative for the development of health, physical education and school sport, said the main problem was play areas that were below standard.
"Many schools do not have grass grounds for outdoor sports and gymnasiums," Mr Abdul-Rahman said. "The equipment to play different games is also not present."
The Princess Haya initiative was launched in 2007 after a study by Canadian experts stated the lack of a physical education curriculum, trained teachers and facilities led to few pupils taking part in sports.
The Ministry of Education last year ordered that children should have three physical education (PE) classes a week until the ninth grade and two a week after that. This is still less than the average of eight hours a week in developed countries.
Abdulla Ibrahim, a PE teacher at the Omar Bin Khattab School in Dubai, said the school did not have a good environment for games.
"More than 90 per cent of the public schools do not have an indoor gym," Mr Ibrahim said. "Even if we want to play outside, the ground is uneven and the concrete makes it impossible to play."
For some games, such as rugby, schools simply do not have the right gear. And while many new government schools have large, well-tended sports fields, many older institutions do not.
Ali Mehad Al Suwaidi, the director general of the ministry, acknowledged the problem and said the ministry was building play spaces at all government schools.
"We are working towards levelling the fields and fitting them with artificial or natural grass, depending on the sport," Mr Al Suwaidi said.
Many schools organise games events at public sport centres across the country but there are not enough of those facilities for everyone.
"Every school has a schedule to use these centres and some can partner with clubs, but it is necessary that they have their own facilities as well," said Mr Abdul-Rahman.
As part of the Princess Haya project, a curriculum has been devised and sports activities are being introduced to cater for pupils with different physical abilities.
The initiative is also planning to begin after-school activities such as horse riding and skiing.
Mr Ibrahim said games such as cricket and handball were getting children more interested but the teaching skills were lagging behind.
Mr Abdul-Rahman said teachers tended to confuse sport with PE, concentrating on the best sports performers rather than trying to get all students fit.
"When the initiative was launched, the first thing we did was make teachers understand that physical education is as important as any other subject taught in school and must be compulsory for all schoolchildren," he said.
"Not all the teachers are physically fit, as well."
Mr Abdul-Rahman said PE teachers were often only teaching games they were good at, and not all children shared their interests.
"The ministry is working on standards for educators in terms of what they should know and what their physical level should be," he said.