It came as some surprise to Mable Ng Chan Sau-pik that the sport most suitable for her two daughters aged eight and 12 should be the burly game of rugby. Jocelyn, 12, and Jacqueline, eight, are among more than a hundred local children who spend Sunday mornings playing the game with the Aberdeen (Go! Sport) Mini Rugby Club. 'I was born in Hong Kong but this is the first time I have seen such a good arrangement for children,' said Ms Ng. She came across the game by accident, at an open day held last summer to launch the club. 'I did not know it would be suitable for girls but they enjoy it very much,' she said. The club's president, Clement Lau Hak-man, said: 'Rugby has become part of these families' lives. Before they would live like normal families on a Sunday, staying in bed late and going to yum cha.' Beyond the two 40-minute physical education sessions included in the school curriculum, Ms Ng has found few opportunities for her primary school children to participate in regular sports clubs and training. For the children at Aberdeen, rugby is helping to fill a vast gap in their physical education, providing them with energetic exercise and the skills, discipline and fun of playing a team game. Thirteen Hong Kong rugby football union clubs now offer weekly mini-rugby training to children from four to 13. 'We now have 2,500 kids playing rugby. Sixty-five per cent are Chinese and 15 to 20 per cent are girls,' said George Simpkin, Hong Kong Rugby Football Union's technical director. In 1986, there were just 600 children playing. He expects the numbers to double again in the next year. Rugby is growing because it caters for all children, regardless of ability or gender, and offers them regular tournaments, giving a purpose to their training that is lacking in many sports initiatives. The success of the Aberdeen rugby club suggests an increasing number of parents are aware of the importance of sport as part of a healthy upbringing for their children and will help them participate. Ms Ng said that to enroll in a summer sports project at South Horizons one member of the family had to queue from 3am to secure places, the demand being so strong. Yet recent research by the Stanley Ho Exercise and Sports Science Laboratory showed that Hong Kong children exercise far less than those in other countries. Professor Duncan Macfarlane, head of the laboratory, said that Hong Kong's lifestyle was partly to blame - few children walked to school, had to climb stairs, or had time and space to play freely after school. 'The degenerative effects of lack of exercise will probably escalate,' said Professor Macfarlane. 'Only two per cent of inactive children become active adults. 'Schools should be the place to remedy the situation, but that will require government intervention. It needs to increase the PE classes from two to four sessions a week, or daily. Access to facilities and open spaces in primary and secondary schools also needs to be addressed.' Dr Koenraad Lidner, head of the Physical Education and Sports Science Unit at Hong Kong University, has found that children's participation in sports declines significantly as they progress through the school system, with more girls dropping out of sports than boys. Academic pressure is the obvious reason, but Dr Lidner has also found that better academic students are more active in sport and exercise than the less academic. Con Conway, vice-president of the Amateur Sports Federation and Olympic Committee and president of the Hong Kong Hockey Association, blames the Government for under-funding sport and the education system for failing to develop sport as part of a healthy and fulfilling lifestyle. 'To totally ignore the requirement that a healthy mind should exist in a healthy body is grossly unfair. We have obese children in primary schools. That is shocking,' said Mr Conway. 'We have no sports ethos going through our school system. Physical education teaching is an afterthought in every school.'. The school curriculum gave neither time nor priority to sport, while the hours children were required to spend doing homework meant they had little free time, he said. The curriculum for primary and secondary students provides two 40-minute physical education classes a week, though Macfarlane's study shows that in practice children only spent 20 minutes actively engaged in sport or exercise. Mr Conway said that 40 minutes should be the minimum per day. 'The Education Department should be making sure schools have sports facilities and insist that sports be a very important part of the curriculum.' Work pressures on children and their parents have meant that other sports providers, in particular the Urban and Region Councils and sports associations, often find it difficult to recruit children for courses during term times. Among the courses run by the councils, only a small minority target children. These are mainly swimming courses, fun days and summer sports projects, though the Regional Council is running classes in ballet and junior golf and offers concentrated sport in its three holiday camps and school education camp. The councils' main contribution to children's sports is that their facilities are now offered to schools free of charge, but neither council gives priority to children in the programmes they organise. 'We understand it is the Education Department's role to provide activities for this age group,' said Charles Chu, the Regional Council's chief leisure manager. 'Although we try to promote programmes for children sometimes it is not possible for them to participate because of the heavy homework. The other problem is the availability of instructors. Ten years ago there were only two sports centres in the New Territories. Now there are 32, all competing for coaches,' said Mr Chu. The councils run courses in conjunction with national sports associations, but only a minority of these are for children. These are often run on a piecemeal rather than regular club basis because space must be kept available for general public use. It is also hard for the public to find out about courses run by the associations. Even though they may be held in the councils' sports facilities, people must contact the associations for information. Patrick Wong Woon-cheung, the Education Department's principal inspector of physical education, admitted that sports activities were limited. Bi-sessional primary schooling meant that there was little time for schools to organise extra-curricula activities, and those that were were targeted at secondary school pupils. 'Activities for primary school children are a problem. The kids are young and have difficulties travelling to the venues. Most parents don't have time to accompany them,' said Mr Wong. An infrastructure for developing school sports does exist. Mr Wong said that the Education Department organised courses for children in conjunction with sports associations. School sports associations organised inter-schools competitions while the Hong Kong Schools Sports Council was responsible for selecting teams to take part in regional competitions. The Education Department relies on teachers' enthusiasm and skills for developing sports in their schools. 'We have gym competitions every year for primary schools. But this depends on school teachers and if they are willing to train pupils. We need qualified teachers but there are not too many of them,' said Mr Wong. Lack of manpower within the department is another problem. There is supposed to be a team of 17 physical education schools inspectors monitoring and developing school sports, but there are four posts vacant. 'You do need a balanced programme,' said Mr Wong. 'Children should at least twice a week enjoy recreational activities, such as playing chess or doing sport. But we need to educate the parents.' Cindy Leung, sports development manager at the Hong Kong Sports Development Board and responsible for the Hongkong Telecom Go! Sport Programme, said: 'The sports facilities in the territory are massive but the question is whether the sports organisations, and the parents, are doing enough for children.' Sports for younger children required more support than for other age groups. 'Organising teenagers and above is easy as they can handle themselves. Younger children need a lot of training, and more behaviour management. There are not enough resources in terms of manpower to do this,' she said. The Go! Sport Programme is part of the government's attempt to reverse Hong Kong's limited enthusiasm for sport. In the past three years it has set up several hundred school groups running modified 'Easy Sports' activities. The programme is now attempting to form a series of community-based clubs to increase children's access to sport. The Aberdeen (Go! Sport) Mini Rugby Club, launched six months ago with the Aberdeen Rugby Club, was the first. A Go! Sport Cricket Club will start this month at the Tin Kwong Road Sports Ground in Ho Man Tin. Next month the Go! Sport staff will start training staff of the Boys and Girls Clubs Association so that they can set up their own Easy Sport programmes. Ms Leung hopes to set up six community-based clubs a year. 'Research shows parents will support children if there are enough programmes,' she said. 'If we can get the facilities and support from sports associations, and resources, more children's sports clubs can be developed on a long-term basis, with on-going structured programmes.'