Solving the childhood inactivity crisis

by Felicity Hayball.

Could children solve the childhood inactivity crisis? Stranger things have happened, argues Felicity Hayball.

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“…Children are disappearing from the outdoors at a rate that would make the top of any conservationist’s list of endangered species if they were any other member of the animal kingdom…” (Gill, 2005)

 Think back to when you were a child – Imagine you’re playing – now, tell me – how have you defined ‘play’? Are you being active? Are you outside? Are you with friends? Now think about the children of today. If you asked them the same thing, how would they define play? Would they say being outside with their friends? Or is play becoming more about smart phones and apps?

Children nowadays often think playing with friends is playing computer games; their parents are concerned with ‘stranger danger’ and busy roads; and it’s cooler to have followers on Instagram than follow a path through the woods. This is all leading to time spent outside decreasing. We know that childhood inactivity is a global phenomenon. Research has shown the amount of children achieving the recommended daily guidelines is at an all time low. In Scotland, for example, less than 20% of children are taking part in the 60 minutes of physical activity that the government recommends.

“Childhood inactivity is a global phenomenon. Research has shown the amount of children achieving the recommended daily guidelines is at an all time low.”

Active children have reduced risk of obesity, type-2-diabetes and heart disease. They are less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. Here in the UK, where I am based, the National Health Service would save millions of pounds a year from inactivity related illnesses. And to the relief of teachers and parents everywhere, studies also suggest that active children are better behaved in school, often resulting in improved grades.

“Studies also suggest that active children are better behaved in school, often resulting in improved grades.”

Unfortunately, we can’t just tell children “go and be active”, and I don’t think telling them ‘you’ll be less at risk of heart disease’ or ‘you’ll be better behaved in biology’ is going to be much of an incentive.

So, how do we encourage children to take part in more physical activity?

What emotions does the words physical activity elicit when you think about them? For many children, the term ‘physical activity’ is associated with school PE classes; taking part in endless drills for a sport they don’t like… BUT… research has found that there is an association between children spending time outside and increased physical activity levels. Moreover, the term play appears to elicit positive emotions from the children. So to encourage physical activity in children, we need to get them outside, and encourage play behaviours. Figuring this out was the easy part. My research focuses on the hard part – how do we go about getting children outside when so many apps appear far more interesting than a field.

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There have been a lot of studies that have asked parents what children want. There is a key problem with this; realistically, how well do parents know what children want? Surely, if we want to know what would make the environment more appealing to children, we should probably ask the children to weigh in on the matter. So my research explores two questions; how do children feel about their outdoor environment? And what changes can we make to increase their time outside? I want to understand what would encourage children to turn off their Xbox, step away from their play stations, stop updating their Facebook, and step out their front door.

Children don’t have the same cognitive competencies as adults. However, that does not mean they are inferior. Children are creative, imaginative, and visual; and it is these unique competencies that are reflected in my research. I asked children to draw, take pictures, and discuss in groups what they like and dislike in their environment, what they want more of, where they feel unsafe, where do their parents tell them they aren’t allowed to go? And do they still go there?!

Six months later and I had some answers.

The findings suggested that adults really have no idea what children want. Take this picture for example, taken by a child in my study:

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Now, how would you interpret this photograph? Maybe the child took the photo to show me a really good playground? Well, that’s what I thought…

And I was wrong.

A lot of the children took very similar photographs – the real intention behind it was to show me something that is present in their environment that they dislike. The children felt many of the playgrounds in their neighbourhoods had been designed for much younger children. It was ‘boring’, ‘too easy’, ‘not challenging’ and ‘not meant for them’. Yet councils are continuing to build such playgrounds to solve the inactivity problem.

Additionally, many of the children also felt some adults actively prevented them from playing. Teachers didn’t want children to go on muddy fields, climb trees, or ruin flowerbeds, and ‘no ball games’ signs littered the neighbourhoods.

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So we want children to be active, but not if it interferes with how adults want children to be active? Is there a right way to be active? If we want children to be active, we need to accept and encourage whichever way they choose to be active. Surely the fact that they are being active is the most important thing?

“If we want children to be active, we need to accept and encourage whichever way they choose to be active.”

My study also found that children of this age group (10/11 years) felt they had nowhere to go. Skate parks were intimidating, teenagers ‘hung around’ green space areas, and playgrounds were perceived as too young for them.

Children from urban areas spoke more of friends being an important influencer of being outside; whereas rural children appeared to focus more on having lots of physical affordances in one place (somewhere with trees, streams, hills, and play equipment was perceived as ideal).

Children are more than capable of telling adults what would help encourage time outside. Solutions such as rain covers over play equipment, more litter bins, colourful walls, park rangers, and cycle lanes separate from roads were all given by the children. The ideas varied depending on the area they lived, and were often simple and financially feasible – giving adults no excuse not to listen. As adults, our job is simple – create an environment that children want. All we need to do is encourage children to go outside. After all, the chances of them being active are far higher in a field than on a sofa.

Gone are the days when a playground could fix all our problems. We could build enough playgrounds to keep the entire cast of Annie busy, but if playgrounds aren’t what children want, we may as well be building motorways. This isn’t a case of ‘if we build it, they will come’, but ‘what should we build, so they will want to come’. Children know what they want and ignoring them isn’t going to solve the inactivity crisis.

 

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