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Are our kids getting enough physical activity?

Only 19% of Australian children get as much physical activity as is recommended. That's the shocking finding of Active Healthy Kids Australia, a research initiative established by the University of South Australia in partnership with the Heart Foundation as part of the Active Healthy Kids Global Initiative. "Wow", I say, but also, "Oh, that's why..."

Why early childhood is such an important time for physical activity.

The benefits of being active for young children include:

  • Healthy growth and development

  • Improving sleep

  • Building strong bones and muscles

  • Helping to establish connections between different parts of the brain

  • Improving balance, co-ordination and strength

  • Development of gross and fine motor skills

  • Improving concentration and thinking skills

  • Improving posture

  • Improving confidence and self-esteem

  • Maintaining and developing flexibility

  • Providing opportunities to develop social skills

  • Improving cardiovascular fitness and helping to achieve and maintain healthy weight

(Health Department of NSW)

That's important, but it's not the whole picture.

The early childhood years (age 2-5) are a time when children perceive their abilities to be quite high, and this is a critical period for the development of not only motor skills, but also self-concept. It is at this time that they develop many of the fundamental movement skills that are prerequisites for the later development of more sophisticated movement skills, as well as a sense of their own capabilities.

Studies have shown an association between kids’ activity levels and their ability to manage their own behaviour and to get along with others, and physical activity has also been shown to improve children’s concentration and attention.

In addition to low levels of physical fitness, the Australian Healthy Kids Australia Report Card in 2016 found that the motor proficiency of children in year 6 was very poor, with as few as 5% of boys and 7% of girls demonstrating mastery of some age-appropriate fundamental movement skills, and the highest level of proficiency in any one skill being 51% (girls, performing a side-gallop). The correlation between low levels of activity and poor physical literacy cannot simply be a coincidence.

Studies have shown that kids who are more physically active in early childhood are more likely to be physically active in later years (Telama et al, 2014; Jones et al, 2013). It’s partly because the habit of physical activity is established in the family, but also because the confidence and skill development that occurs in these early years enables children to more confidently engage in physical activity as they grow (Wrotniak et al, 2006). Physical literacy is one of the strongest factors in the enjoyment of and engagement in physical activity in later childhood and adolescence (AHKA, 2016), so engaging children in physical activity when they are young is critical for their lifelong physical health and psychosocial wellbeing.

Physical activity in childhood is predictive of physical activity, fitness and overall wellbeing in adulthood (Telama et al, 2014, Timmons et al, 2012). It is also very important that children maintain physical activity through adolescence, as this is a huge factor in whether they remain physically active as adults (Janz, Dawson and Mahoney, 2000).

How much physical activity to children really need?

School-aged children should have at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day, including activities that make them “huff and puff”, and should have physical activity at least 3 times a week that builds strength in their muscles and bones (AHKA 2014; Department of Health and Aging, 2014; Jones et al, 2013; Strong et al, 2005). For younger children, physical activity recommendations are much higher, at least 3 hours per day every day, which is broken up into shorter sessions throughout the day (AHKA, 2014; Department of Health and Aging, 2014(2)).

Is sport enough?

Most Australian kids play sport, but there are a number of reasons why participation in sport may not give kids the physical activity they need. When all the time spent listening to instructions, waiting for turns, or discussing tactics is assessed, as little of 50% of the time spent at sports training may be spent being physically active (AHKA, 2014).

The competitive nature of sport can be a huge barrier to participation among children. Active Healthy Kids Australia (2014) advocates strongly for the need for a wide variety of different opportunities to engage in physical activity to be available to children, including sport, active recreation, and the performing arts, but also advocates that children need to be encouraged to be more active outside structured activity.

Physical activity in childhood needs to include both structured, intentionally-taught, and unstructured, spontaneous activity (NSW Department of Health, 2017), and the decline in physical activity parallels the decline in opportunities for play in general which is a matter of great concern among early childhood health professionals.

How can our children get more physically active?

Increasing curriculum pressures on school teachers, and the risk-averse culture that has led to the removal of lots of risks from the playground, have resulted in children getting less physical activity at school. In addition, the availability and attractiveness of sedentary pursuits, such as the use of electronic devices, the tendency for kids to be supervised at all times, and the disappearance of the great Australian backyard from suburban landscapes, are all contributing factors.

After school programs can help provide children with the physical activity they need (Beets et al, 2013), but not all after-school activities are as beneficial as they could be. Active Healthy Kids Australia (2014) cites that the amount of time spent actually moving during sport training sessions and competitions may be as low as 50% of the total time spent "doing" sport, and recommends that coaches and organizations should ensure that physical activity providers maximise the time children spend being physically active.

This is something we at CirQuest pride ourselves on. We reduce the time children spend waiting for their turns by giving them lots of things to do. We keep our classes small and our student:teacher ratios low, so that children can spend more of the time they are in our classes doing physical activity. We use circuits and other innovative equipment set-ups to keep kids moving and learning as much as possible, and use lots of different ways of giving instructions to reduce the time kids spend listening to verbal instructions. We engage the children in instrumental tasks, such as setting up and packing away, which not only keeps them moving, but also builds a sense of their contribution to the team and responsibility for their environment. CirQuest is an industry leader in this area.

In addition to engaging in organized physical activity, it is imperative that our community encourage, support and facilitate the incorporation of more physical activity throughout their everyday activities. Ways to do this include using active transport to and from school, sporting commitments or social engagements; providing opportunities to be active both indoors and outdoors in an unstructured environment at both school and home; participating in household chores. and breaking up long periods of time that they are sedentary, including limiting the amount of time that children and young people are engaged in using electronic media (AHKA, 2014).

Unstructured active play is a critical element in kids’ development of motor skills and physical literacy (AHKA, 2016). At CirQuest, we see a lot of children who do not know what to do when given time for unstructured activity. We encourage kids to learn how to occupy themselves in free time by providing stimulating equipment, a social environment, and supervision when required to ensure that play does not become inappropriate for the setting. We also model and participate in active play, support children to use verbal communication to collaborate with peers, and involve children in the planning and set-up of play experiences. We believe this may have a positive impact on how children use their unstructured play time at home and at school.

Would you like some ideas for gross motor play activities you can do with your preschooler or toddler at home? We've compiled a list of 31 of our favourites - that's one a day for a whole month of play!

Circus is a fantastic physical activity to complement kids' activity through sport, at school, at home and in other places in the community. Circus may be more accessible to children who don't like competitive sport, and is also very rewarding for those who do, and helps children develop their fundamental movement skills and their confidence and self-concept in unique and powerful ways. At CirQuest, we know kids and we are experts in how to ensure kids get the most out of their circus classes.

To find out more about CirQuest's classes for kids, click here!

If you would like to find out more about how Australian kids’ levels of physical activity compare to the global context, and how you can get your kids more active, check out some of the links in the source texts list.

Physical activity in childhood source texts:

Active Healthy Kids Australia (2014). Is Sport Enough? The 2014 Active Healthy Kids Australia Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Young People. Adelaide, South Australia: Active Healthy Kids Australia.

Active Healthy Kids Australia (2016). Physical Literacy: Do Our Kids Have All the Tools? The 2016 Active Healthy Kids Australia Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Young People. Adelaide, South Australia: Active Healthy Kids Australia.

Becker, D., McClelland, M., Loprinzi, P. and Trost, P. (2014) Physical Activity, Self-Regulation, and Early Academic Achievement in Preschool Children Early Education and Development 25(1)

Beets, M., Beight, A., Erwin, H. and Hubert, J. (2009) After-School Program Impact on Physical Activity and Fitness: A Meta-Analysis. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 36(6) pp.527-537.

Department of Health and Aging (2014) Make Your Move - Sit less - Be active for life! National physical activity recommendations for children aged 5-12.$File/brochure%20PA%20Guidelines_A5_5-12yrs.PDF

Department of Health and Aging (2014) Move and Play Every Day: National physical activity recommendations for children aged 0-5$File/Move%20and%20play%20every%20day%200-5yrs.PDF

Hinkley, T., Teychenne, M., Downing, K., Ball, K., Salmon, J. and Hesketh, K. (2014) Early childhood physical activity, sedentary behaviors and psychosocial well-being: A systematic review. Preventive Medicine 62 pp. 182-192

Janz, K., Dawson, J. and Mahoney, L. (2000) Tracking physical fitness and physical activity from childhood to adolescence: the Muscatine study. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 2000.pp.1250-1257.

Jones, R., Hinkley, T., Okely, A. and Salmon, J. (2013) Tracking Physical Activity and Sedentary Behavior in Childhood: A Systematic Review. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 44(6) pp.651-658.

Lobo, Y. B. and Winsler, A. (2006), The Effects of a Creative Dance and Movement Program on the Social Competence of Head Start Preschoolers. Social Development 15 pp.501–519. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9507.2006.00353.x

Palmer, K., Miller, M. and Robinson, L. (2013) Acute exercise enhances preschoolers' ability to sustain attention. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology 35(4) pp. 433-7.

Strong, W., Malina, R., Blimkie, C., Daniels, S., Dishman, R., Gutin, B., Hergenroeder, A., Must, A., Nixon, P., Piyarnik, J., Rowland, R., Trost, S. and Trudeau, F. (2005). Evidence Based Physical Activity for School-age Youth. The Journal of Pediatrics 146(6) pp.732-737.

Telama, R., Yang, X., Leskinen, E., Kankaanpaa, A., Hirvensalo, M., Tammelin, T., Viikari, J. and Raitakari, O. (2014) Tracking of Physical Activity from Early Childhood through Youth into Adulthood Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 2014 pp. 955-962.

Timmons, B., LeBlanc, A., Carson, V., Connor Gorber, S., Dillman, C., Janssen, I., Kho, M., Spence, J., Stearns, J. and Tremblay, M. (2012) Systematic review of physical activity and health in the early years (aged 0–4 years) Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism 37 pp.773-792.

Wrotniak, B., Epstein, L., Dorn, J., Jones, K. and Kondilis, V. (2006) The Relationship Between Motor Proficiency and Physical Activity in Children. Pediatrics 118(6).

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