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25 May 2023 | 14:14

Coalition member Youth Sport Trust, the UK-based children’s charity focused on improving young people’s wellbeing through sport and play, has recently introduced the concept of 'Sport Sanctuaries' in schools. These can be either designated spaces within schools or can be specific physical activities that are designed to calm their minds, and regulate their emotions. The charity's Head of Sport, Victoria Wells, explains the concept.

Recently, it seems that there are more and more children and adults whose nervous systems are dysregulated by all the energy and information around us. They find it difficult to focus their attention on a task or find the grounded, calm, awake and ready place within them that is required for learning and connection.  

sportsanc2For many young people, school can be a challenging environment. With academic pressure, social dynamics, and personal struggles, it’s not surprising that some pupils may feel overwhelmed, anxious, or dysregulated. This can lead to poor concentration, disruptive behaviour, and disengagement from learning. It can also mean young people not feeling like they belong in school, causing further challenges.


Simply defined, Sport Sanctuaries¹ are places or activities that are intentionally designed to use physical movement as a way of calming, replenishing or reawakening the senses, generating positive engagement and wellbeing. The Oxford Dictionary defines a sanctuary as a ‘safe space’. This aligns to the biophilia hypothesis, which can reduce stress, improve cognitive function, and enhance mood and creativity. As Professor John Ratey ² highlights: "Physical activity is crucial to the way we think and feel…it can be the cue for the building blocks of learning in the brain, it affects mood, anxiety and attention, and guards against stress." Therefore, we must find ways that enable young people to self-regulate their mood, re-build resilience and feel good about themselves. Physical activity, and its positive correlation to our mental health, offers this at all levels. 

To illustrate how Sport Sanctuaries can benefit pupils, let’s consider a hypothetical example. Imagine a pupil, let’s call her Sarah, who is struggling with anxiety and concentration at school. She finds it difficult to focus on her lessons and often feels overwhelmed by the demands of the school day. However, her school has recently established a Sport Sanctuary co created with young people, which Sarah can access during breaks and lunchtimes. This sanctuary includes green space outdoors, and areas of the classroom intentionally designed to draw upon a range of senses through individual activities, all pupil led. Sarah therefore has a voice and a choice in what her sanctuary is and is supported by teachers.  

At the Sport Sanctuary, Sarah can engage in physical activity, such as free running, yoga, or repetitive ball drills, which helps her to release tension and boost her mood. She can also use mindfulness resources, such as breathing exercises or guided meditations, to regulate her emotions and calm her mind. By spending time in the Sport Sanctuary, Sarah feels more energised, focused, and motivated to learn. 

Why might this help you create a Sport Sanctuary in either your school, youth or community setting? 

Physical activity can be integral in creating a Sport Sanctuary, through; play, games, movement, rhythm, music, social connection/interaction, understanding breathing techniques, beauty awareness, awe, benevolence, and experiences of nature/the outdoor environment. These factors, which can also be tactile and sensory, help young people (and us!) switch our emotional state from protection to connection, from threat to safety.

Knowing this, feeling this and intentionally working with this idea in mind could lead to us all working towards changing the way we respond to the different behaviours of young people, and creating an environment to accommodate a range of sensitivities. We can create intentional ‘sanctuary’ through a planned, responsive and personalised set of experiences. The intention of these experiences is to move a young person out of a protection state (which can often result in demonstrating negative and challenging behaviours), towards a connection state that supports their personal, academic and social growth and development in our school or community settings. 

By promoting physical activity and mental health, Sport Sanctuaries can have a positive impact on pupils’ educational outcomes. Research has shown that physical activity can improve cognitive function, memory, and concentration, all of which are crucial for academic success. Moreover, the development of emotional regulation skills can improve pupils’ resilience, self-esteem, and social relationships, which can also have a positive impact on their educational and career aspirations.


The example provided for Sarah above demonstrates how Sport Sanctuaries can support pupils’ emotional and physical wellbeing and help them to succeed academically. It also highlights the importance of addressing the gap between education and employment, which are outcomes highlighted by the Coalition's #OpenGoal framework which our charity is proud to support. Through #OpenGoal, Coalition members are aiming to bridge the gap between education and employment by promoting the development of essential life skills through sport. Sport Sanctuaries can contribute to this goal by fostering the development of emotional regulation, resilience, and self-esteem, which are essential skills for success in education and the workplace. 

To support schools and youth groups in implementing Sport Sanctuaries, the Youth Sport Trust has developed a guide which provides practical advice and resources for creating and sustaining these spaces. The guide (which can be accessed here) includes information on designing a Sport Sanctuary, selecting equipment and resources, and engaging pupils in the process. It also provides case studies and examples of best practice from schools that have successfully implemented sport sanctuaries. There are also two podcasts with examples of what schools have done (and the theory behind it) available to listen to here and here.

  1. Wells, V  November 2020  and  
  2. John J. Ratey, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain 2010.