Let the children play

10 Jun 2021 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 10 Jun 2021

Pic: Pixabay

Experts are expressing increasing concern about the impact the pandemic has had on physical activity amongst children and we have more reasons for worry in Northern Ireland than elsewhere.  

This is no small matter – lack of exercise is a major contributory factor in childhood obesity and is also known to lessen the likelihood of children developing Type 2 diabetes and a number of cancers in later life. Exercise also promotes wellbeing by reducing stress and anxiety and improving wellbeing.

The drop in activity is likely to be especially concerning in Northern Ireland, which according to 2016 research has the lowest levels of exercise amongst children in Europe.

What seems especially frustrating is that the solutions are low to no cost, whilst the price we are paying for not doing enough is vast.

A report from Stormont’s excellent research team has analysed the problem and suggested what needs to be done.

Before the pandemic there was already a serious crisis. The number of obese children and adolescents had increased tenfold in 40 years.

In Northern Ireland more than 26% of children were classed as overweight or obese starting primary school and the figure was up at 33% for those entering secondary school.

The cost of this is eyewatering – experts estimate the total lifetime cost of childhood obesity for Northern Ireland alone at £2.1 billion.

There is no doubting the linkage between weight gain and lack of physical activity. Worldwide children now spend an average of eight hours per day sedentary, thanks to TV, laptops, smartphones as well as sitting in classrooms and doing homework.

Now a series of different studies suggest that exercise levels have slipped further during the pandemic.

A study published in America found that among parents of children aged 5 to 8, about 54% perceived their children to be exercising somewhat or much less, while about 66% of parents of children aged 9 to 13 gave the same answer. About 64% of parents of younger children reported that their kids stayed seated somewhat or much more, compared with 82% among parents of older children.

Children tend to exercise less as they get to secondary school age – and this study found that this process was accelerating. The concern is that this may prove very difficult to reverse.

Sport England saw a similar trend with in its annual survey Active Lives which was published in October of last year.

It found that the proportion of children and young people who were meeting the recommended level of activity (one hour per day) fell by 2.3% overall compared with the period before the pandemic.

Boys were hardest hit with a 6.4% drop which researchers put down to the lack of team sports and their preference for active play nine to 11 year-olds were hardest hit. This was offset by an increase in girls activity – who were more likely to do fitness regimes and go for walks.

More worrying long term was this finding: “During the mid-May to late-July period (the summer term), we saw overall drops in both those feeling confident when taking part and finding sport easy compared to the same period 12 months earlier. As restrictions started to be eased during this period, it’s likely some children felt less confident as they returned to activities they’d not been able to do for some time and, if they had lost some skills, might have felt less competent.”

This has understandably led to a drop in the numbers of children who enjoy sport, which may prove to be a difficult trend to reverse.

If we want to get children to exercise more, then schools are the best place to start. Yet the Stormont paper found that only 40% of post primary school pupils get the recommended 120 PE in schools per week and 19% of primary school pupils get just 30 minutes or less.

The paucity of PE in primary school is particularly worrying – the report points out that physical activity is not just important to combat obesity, it is also essential for developing fundamental movement skills like running, balancing, catching, jumping and throwing. These are vital for sport, but also for an active, healthy life  not just vital for sports. They should be acquired by the time children reach 11.

Unfortunately that is not happening – the report cites research which suggests that less than 10% of both boys and girls have full mastered these skills by the time they move to secondary school.

This is not surprising when you consider that the latest – pre-pandemic figures show that only 13% of school children in NI met the guidelines of 60 min of physical activity per day.

If all schools were to ensure that they provided the two hours per week of PE which government recommends this would help close the gap, and if activities were fun and exciting they will surely inspire youngsters to do more out of school. Yet it would appear that too many schools are prioritising other aspects of the curriculum and examination results over exercise.

This is a curious approach, given as the report stresses: “A large body of evidence demonstrates that inactivity is one of the most significant causes of death, disability, and reduced quality of life across the developed world.”

And it also ignores further research that demonstrates the beneficial impact exercise has on mental wellbeing, concentration levels as well as leadership and citizenship skills.

There’s clearly a need for schools to up their game when it comes to exercise. And that doesn’t just mean more of it, it also means more variety.  Not all children want to play traditional ultra-competitive sports – some are put off exercising by them. These youngsters need outlets too so that they can develop interests that they can carry on in later life.

IN this context it has been encouraging to see renewed funding for the primary school Sports Programme which is jointly run by the IFA and the GAA. It has great potential to help children to become more active and engaged in sport.

If this were to be supplemented by making two hours per week of PE compulsory in every school, that would be a good start in addressing what is a serious and growing problem.


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