Twenty-five years ago, children in London walked to school and played in parks and playing fields after school and at the weekend. Today they are usually driven to school by parents anxious about safety and spend hours glued to television screens or computer games. Meanwhile, community playing fields are being sold off to property developers at an alarming rate.

'This change in lifestyle has, sadly, meant greater restrictions on children,' says Neil Armstrong, Professor of Health and Exercise Sciences at the University of Exeter. 'If children continue to be this inactive, they'll be storing up big problems for the future.'

In 1985, Professor Armstrong headed a five-year research project into children's fitness. The results, published in 1990, were alarming. The survey, which monitored 700 11-16-year-olds, found that 48 per cent of girls and 41 per cent of boys already exceeded safe cholesterol levels set for children by the American Heart Foundation. It also found that 13 per cent of boys and 10 per cent of girls were overweight.

More disturbingly, the survey found that over a four-day period, half the girls and one-third of the boys did less exercise than the equivalent of a brisk 10-minute walk. High levels of cholesterol, excess body fat and inactivity are believed to increase the risk of coronary heart disease.

'If these symptoms are being uncovered in pre-teenagers, there's a strong possibility they will track these children into adult life,' says Professor Armstrong.

The statistics seem particularly bleak when set against the fact that scores of the nation's playing fields are being sold off for commercial development.

'We are notified of five land sales a week,' says Elsa Davies, director of the National Playing Fields Association. 'That means somebody is selling a playing field somewhere in the UK five times a week.'

It's a serious problem, she says. 'So much land is being looked at in terms of development. If land is being lost for play, sport and recreation, local communities have a poorer quality of life.'

More and more children, Ms Davies says, are forced to play on the street. 'Three hundred children are killed on the road every year. The community has a responsibility to provide for its youngsters.

The good news, however, is that a few small companies and children's activity groups have reacted positively and creatively to the problem.

Monique Roffey

'Take That, shouts Gloria Thomas, striking a disco pose astride her mini-spacehopper. 'Take That, echo a flock of toddlers, adopting outrageous postures astride their space hoppers.

'Michael Jackson, she shouts, and they all do a spoof fan-crazed shriek. During the wild and chaotic hopper race across the studio floor, commands like this are issued and responded to with untrammelled glee. The sight of 15 bouncing seven-year-olds who seem about to launch into orbit at every bounce brings tears to the eyes. Uncoordinated, loud, excited and emotional, children provide raw comedy.

What they don't know is that they're at a Fit Kids class, and that the fun is a disguise for the serious exercise plan they're covertly being taken through. Fit Kids trains instructors to run fitness classes for children. 'Ninety per cent of children don't like team sports,' says company director, Gillian Gale. 'Our ethos is to try to provide an opportunity for children to enter into activities which are non-competitive and pleasure-based. Our motto is: 'Our emphasis is fun, our aim is fitness and health'.'

The company also aims to promote a more active lifestyle for children, and to make them more conscious of fitness and health.

Gloria Thomas, an ex-Bond girl (she was 007's girlfriend in A View to a Kill) and a qualified Fit Kid instructor, says that she also aims to boost confidence. 'I try to open up the children's personalities and show them that it's okay to scream and shout and let themselves go. Schools instill a competitive spirit at a young age, whereas I try to teach them that it doesn't matter who wins.'

Watching some of the children play a game of musical hoops, it's plain to see why this is an important lesson. While some of the children are naughty, carefree and adventurous, skipping far away from their hoops when the music is on, others remain rooted to the spot. One thin boy is too frightened to leave his hoop when the music starts, and when it stops he jumps on it with a nervous burst of laughter. An anxious over-achiever in the making? Or has he simply lost one too many sports day events already?

Later a parachute is brought out. This is a favourite prop. The children throw it in the air and play a game of cat and mouse. Some of the children, the mice, hide in the parachute while the cats have to catch them.

In between games, a boy tries to climb to the top of a climbing frame nearby, and a little girl bursts into tears for no apparent reason. With eyes apparently in the back of her head, Gloria defuses both potential disasters. The boy is quickly and firmly told to get down and the girl is given a hug. What's her trick? 'The idea is to get down to their level but still remain in command - and to be consistent,' she says. 'Children should feel they can relate to you and talk to you, yet if you're too strong with them you'll scare them, and if you're too weak they'll go beserk.'

These children, however, are having a ball. And so is Gloria. 'I adore children,' she enthuses. 'The cuter the better.' These kids are cute.

Fit Kids classes cost pounds 1-pounds 3 per hour. Local details - Gillian Gale on 071-924 4435.

Gloria Thomas also does children's birthday parties. 071-736 8377.

Monique Roffey

Young blades

John Murphy does a casual leap, spins in the air, lands smoothly, and comes to a graceful halt. In front of him is a group of wobbly, giggling children, most of whom are on roller skates or blades for the first time.

'I'm six, I've been before and I want to do that,' gasps Rhiannon, starting off a barrage of introductions. 'I've got new skates, I'm five and I fall over a lot,' says Abigail. Seven-year-oldcc Michael has come along with his sister because he wants to skate faster than his friends. Ricky, aged six, wants to know how to go backwards, while her older brother, Luke, just came along for a laugh. The others, myself included, would be content to stay upright.

The parents, who all remember roller skating in the streets when they were kids, have brought their children to the Meadowside Leisure Centre in south-east London because 'it just isn't safe to let them out on their own any more. This is one of the few centres that offers skating as a sport that can be taught. The children love it, and it is an excellent form of exercise.

John Murphy, who has skated all his life, representing Britain at various international levels of artistic skating, is one of three roller-skating coaches at Meadowside. Although the centre does not hire out roller-blades, children can bring along their own and join a skating class. The best age for children to start lessons, he says, is six or seven. By nine they are learning bad habits, while older children are too caught up with street cred to take lessons, however much they might need them.

John begins with the basics - how to stand, feet a shoulder's width apart, leaning forward slightly. 'Most kids stand upright, their legs shoot forwards and they end up on their bottoms. Hand in hand, taking small steps to start with, we are told to walk like soldiers - lifting our feet up (to prevent us using the toe-stop to propel ourselves forwards). After clumping around fairly confidently, the next step is to rock our shoulders from side to side, pushing forwards. Suddenly the whole class is skating.

After a few practice runs round the gym, John takes us through toe-stops (dragging one foot behind using the 'brake' on the front of the skate to slow down), the T-stop (which has the whole class on the floor) and various exercises including snaking forwards, backwards and balancing on one leg.

The British Federation of Roller Skating has come up with a Basic Skills Award Scheme. Grades give children an incentive to practise basic exercises from which they can progress to any of the three disciplines within the sport.

Things haven't changed much since the eccentric inventor John Joseph Merlin demonstrated his prototype roller skates in 1760. Making a grand entrance at a masquerade ball, Merlin skated into the ballroom playing a violin and smashed into a large mirror - breaking it and injuring himself.

As the others practise their toe-stops, I hobble shakily off to the changing room and terra firma.

Lydia Conway

Let's dance

The boys are watching the trains. The girls are keener and half of them obviously old hands. You can always tell the baby ballerinas, even without the kit: the tidy hair, the tilt of the head, the smell under the nose.

The room in the Festival Hall is filling up for the Ballroom Blitz Coppelia workshop. Thirty five children running artistically amok. Only five of them boys. A few excitable little madams of six or seven are already down to vest and knickers and need no encouragement to try the tutus for size. And they almost fit. One Royal Ballerina has 28-inch hips, so perhaps this isn't surprising.

My own toddler slips into a little number in white lace and net. Parental shutters click furiously. I encourage him to try something a shade more butch in olive velvet. It is Patrick Armand's Romeo costume. Ted poses obligingly but his eyes have wandered to the railway bridge.

There is quite a lot of capering about, but this introductory workshop is more concerned with promoting the glamour of ballet than demonstrating its nuts and bolts. Like synchronised swimming, it contrives to prettify pain; the girly paraphernalia - leotards and hair slides and eye make-up - cons the girls into thinking it isn't a hard slog. It seems to work.

Boys, however, tend not to respond to this approach. Dubious lads should be reminded that the great male dancers can probably out-run and out-jump premier league footballers - the truly great ones can out-act them as well. The ballet world is always short of men - very short of tall men. But somehow female teachers telling a story about dolls in a room full of frilly dresses does little to convince a small boy like mine that there's a place for him at the barre.

Perhaps two-and-a-half was a bit ambitious. Ever noticed the child who screams for her mother and refuses to pretend to be a little cat with the other children? That will be your child when taken to a dance workshop for the first time.

People fondly imagine that children have a natural affinity for ballet. Even parents who don't like it themselves will still regard Swan Lake as the perfect family treat, dragging tired tots off to watch flocks of lugubrious wildfowl and expecting to enjoy themselves while they wait for the unhappy ending three hours later.

But even the jolly little toyshop of Coppelia is beyond Ted, who loses interest as the other children merrily link hands and tiptoe into Dr Coppelius's lair. He takes the seat next to mine and puts his sandals back on (on the wrong feet, naturally). 'I watch,' he says decidedly and views the proceedings with the jaded eye of a ballet critic.

My own fault really. The other children knew the story of Coppelia already. A sensible parent would have been reading Hoffmann and playing Delibes for weeks beforehand. The fact that a child can be so disconcerted by a mere workshop is an object lesson in the care you would need to take before enrolling with a school.

This was a terrible mistake. He's too young. Suddenly he catches my eye and rises smiling onto demi pointe before rushing off to look at the trains again.

Louise Levene

Children's dance

BATTERSEA ARTS CENTRE Lower Hall, Old Town Hall, Lavender Hill SW1 (071-223 2223) details (081-679 1794). Christina Ross Ballet School Tue 4.15pm, Fri 4.30pm & 5pm. 12-week term pounds 45. Ballet for 3-year-olds and ballet and tap for 4-year-olds. Formal ballet, modern dance and tap dance grade exams for 5-year-olds.

CHISENHALE DANCE SPACE 64 Chisenhale Rd E3 (081-981 6617). Tues afternoons and

Sat mornings creative dance classes for ages 2-14. pounds 1 a class.

CRAZEE KIDS: weekly classes in NW3, NW8 & NI0, including creative movement, dance, drama & music through wide range of activities for ages 2-3 & 3-5. pounds 5 for

45min class or pounds 60 a term. Ring Lisa on 081-444 5333 for details.

DANCE CLASSES: Susan Zalcman's classes (pre-ballet for under age 3; ballet for over age 3; jazz and tap for over age 6 at Pineapple Studio, 7 Langley St WC2 and at the Amadeus Centre, 50 Shirland Rd W9. Details on 071-289 1869.

DONALD MCALPINE DANCE STUDIO The Parish House, 330 Clapham Rd SW9 (081-673 4992). Very good, friendly music and movement classes for under 5s (not really suitable for under 3s). Thurs at 2pm & 3pm, Fri at 4.15pm. pounds 22 a term. Parents stay for first session.

GREENWICH DANCE AGENCY The Borough Hall, Royal Hill SE10 (081-293 9741). From Oct 5: Weds 10.15-11am Dance Play for under 5s with Sarah Kelk; every Sat 10am-11am, creative dance workshops in contemporary and African dance for

ages 3-8. pounds 2 a session (concs pounds 1.50).

HIGHBURY ROUNDHOUSE 71 Ronalds Rd N5 (071-359 5916). Weekly term time children's classes include under 5s creative dance, ballet, tap, drama, painting, karate and French. pounds 1.75-pounds 3.50 a class.


2 Parkhurst Rd N7 (071-607 0561). Classes for children from 8-16 including kit drumming, contemporary dance, band workshop, visual art workshop and ballet grades 3 and 4. pounds 20 a term. Sat and after school classes include ballet for 5-11s, dance theatre workshops for 8-13s and 13+, boys ballet and adult classes.

LABAN CENTRE Laurie Grove SE14 (081-692 4070). From Oct every Sat, creative dance classes for 4-6 year olds and 7-10 year olds. Ring for times and prices. French through song and dance for children over 6. Also Babytone and Toddlertone.

MOVING PARTS at The White Lion Youth Centre, White Lion St N1, and at the Harrow Youth Club, 189 Freston Road W10 (bookings and brochure, ring Yolande on 081-674 6650). Every Sat, 11am-5pm ballet, tap, jazz, afro-Caribbean dance, drama and acrobatics for aged 3-16. pounds 3 an hour plus annual membership pounds 5 (50 per cent discount for families on income support or unemployment benefit). Also at The Gym, The Sanctuary, 11 Floral St WC2: chi1dren's ballet and tap classes every Sat 11am-5pm for 3-12 year olds. pounds 45 a term plus pounds 5 membership.

THE PLACE 17 Dukes Rd WC1. Every Sat 1pm African dance. Course for ages 4-13, pounds 15 a term. Details: Harriet Adimora

071-373 1727.


48 Vicarage Crescent SW11 (071-223 0091). Good classical ballet classes for 5-17. Also residential and non-residential summer schools for 8-12s and 10-14s from pounds 225 a week. Entry to classes by audition. (Also supply approved list of teachers).

THE ROYAL BALLET SCHOOL 155 Talgarth Rd W14 (081-748 6335). Children who are accepted to this competitive classical ballet school receive a full-time general education in addition to ballet classes. The school also runs two residential summer schools for aged 10-11 (boys accepted up to 13) and for dancers of 15-17. Acceptance for Junior (pounds 228 a week) and Senior (pounds 413 two weeks). Summer School by audition only, held between January and October.

Junior Associates Scheme designed to introduce children from 8-10 who show a natural potential for dancing, to classical ballet and provide preparatory course for those contemplating entry to the Lower School (pounds 110 for 10-week term).

For list of teachers and local dance schools send SAE to Imperial Society of Teachers of

Dancing, Euston Hall, Birkenhead St WCI (071-837 9967).

Shops selling blades, skates, equipment and clothes:

LONDON KITE AND JUGGLING COMPANY 10a Fouberts Place W1 (071-437 4552).

SKATE ATTACK 95 Highgate Rd NW5

(071-267 6961).

SKATE CITY 19 Masons Hill Bromley, Kent (081-460 4456).

STREATHAM SKATES 2 Hopton Parade, Streatham High Rd (opp ice rink) SW16

(081-677 8747).

BIKE AND SKATE CITY 19-21 Masons Hill, Bromley (081-460 4456).

ROAD RUNNER Unit 2, Lancaster Rd W11 (071-792 0584).

Skate hire

ROAD RUNNER Unit 002, Lancaster Rd W11 (071-792 0584). You can hire in-line skates for pounds 8 a day (pounds 15 for 2 days) and arrange lessons from here in nearby Hyde Park. Smallest boot for hire is a children's shoe size 13.

Roller rinks

ROLLER CITY Campus West, The Campus, Welwyn Garden City AL8 6BX

(0707 339211). Weekdays noon-5pm; Wed 6-9pm, Fri 7-10pm Sat & Sun 9.15-11.15am & 2pm-6pm. pounds 2.50-pounds 3-50 (inc skate hire).

PIER PAVILION Central Parade, Herne Bay, Kent (0227 366921). Sat and Sun British Skater Hockey Association's international. Open for public skating sessions daily.

ROLLER EXPRESS Lea Valley Trading Estate, Angel Rd N18 (081-807 7345).

Popular parks

HYDE PARK and especially Kensington Gardens where there are miles of smooth paths and you can see skaters on any day of the week if the weather is good. At weekends there are usually street hockey pickup games (bring your stick) and plenty of experts around to give lessons to beginners.

GREENWICH PARK is popular with the locals who take advantage of the steep downhill runs for some thrilling grass blade skating.

TRAFALGAR SQUARE is the in place on a Sun evening for dancing, posing, checking out the latest roller fashion and generally having a good time. Mainly adults.

REGENT'S PARK is popular with local kids and adults alike and you can usually get a pickup street hockey game on a Sun.

Leisure centres

Ring round your nearest leisure centres, most of which have some form of roller skating facilities, if only roller discos, but you usually have to bring your own skates.

MEADOWSIDE LEISURE CENTRE Tudway Road, Kidbrooke SE3 (081-856 0101). Sat: roller hockey for over 12s and under 12s. Sun: family roller skating open sessions. Mon: tuition and grading. Also holiday programmes, speed skating, and beginner sessions. Times vary pounds 1.60 (skate hire 50p).

Roller speed clubs

ALEXANDRA PALACE RSC 4 Raleigh Rd, Enfield (081-367 0636).

NORTH LONDON RSC 24 Hawthorn Ave, Palmers Green N13 (081-882 7218).

GARDEN CITY RSC 7 Scotts View, Welwyn Garden City, Herts (0707 338630).

HARINGAY RSC 17a Dagmar Rd N4 (no phone number).

Governing bodies

BRITISH FEDERATION OF ROLLER SKATING Lilleshall National Sports Centre, nr Newport, Shropshire TFIO 9AT

(0252 825253).

BFRS ROLLER SPEED COMMITTEE 4 Windsor Rd, Castle Bromwich, Birmingham B36 0JN (021 7707589).


Training and instruction

ON ROLREC&TEC 56 Ferme Rd N4 4ED

(081-292 0362) offers a roller skating service to leisure centres and schools with skilled instructors, skate provision and safety equipment. Also offers instructor and leader training. Malcolm Chapman runs various courses and sessions all over London both indoor and outdoors for children of 5 and over. Those interested should ring him on the above number.

SKATER MAGAZINE 16 Standish House, Elford Close, Kidbrooke SE3 9YP (081-856 7674). A new, very popular magazine covering all aspects of roller skating, forthcoming events, useful addresses, a second hand section and a helpful staff willing to answer skating queries. Ring for a copy.

Lydia Conway

(Photographs omitted)