Your kids may be physically illiterate

By: Kristine Hayward

Running, skipping, jumping, throwing a ball; all these things should come naturally when you're a kid, right?

Well, maybe not so much anymore.

Children used to spend hours outside, playing leapfrog, rolling down hills, playing catch at the playground or skating at the local community club rink.

By being active, they learned the basic skills that allowed them to participate in more complex sports and activities as they grew older. A kid who learns to catch a ball at age four or five will be able to play pick-up baseball when they are six or seven. A kid who learns how to skate when they are young can participate in a variety of sports and activities that involve skating.

But times have changed.

Today, fewer children possess the fundamental skills that kids used to develop naturally through active play. In other words, with the loss of free play opportunities, our kids are less physically literate.

This poses a serious problem because if kids lack the fundamental physical skills, they are less likely to participate in sports and other physical activities as they grow up. And that means they will not be as active as they need to be to maintain good health.

Dean Kriellaars, a professor at the University of Manitoba's School of Medical Rehabilitation, is an expert in the emerging field of physical literacy. He says parents need to be made aware of the growing problem of physical illiteracy, and what they can do to reverse the trend.

"Physical activity is the key to good health. Unless parents take more of an interest in this issue, the generation growing up today are going to experience a lot of health problems that could be avoided simply by being more active," he says.

The 2013 Active Healthy Kids Canada report serves as evidence of the problem. It cites a 2012 survey that found that although 58 per cent of Canadian parents walked to school when they were kids, only 28 per cent of their children walk to school today. In just one decade (2000 to 2010), the proportion of five- to 17-year-olds using only inactive modes of transportation (bus, train or car) to get to and from school has increased to 62 per cent from 51 per cent.

The time spent driving to and from places, along with the time spent in front of the computer and playing video games, all add up to the fact only five per cent of Canadian kids meet the physical activity guidelines of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per day.

"Exploring the world in a physical way is critical to the process, from learning what does and does not work, to attempts at movement, to learning spatial awareness to confidence and creativity in movement," says Kriellaars, adding a life-long attitude toward fitness starts early, often between Grades 3 and 6.

You're probably thinking your children are learning these skills in school, the same way they learn their ABCs. They are! But just like reading and writing, families and communities need to support the skills learned at school. This is done by providing opportunities to practise and master fundamental movement skills outside school hours.

The good news is efforts are underway to make our kids more physically literate. Community programs are focusing more on skill development. And neighbourhoods are being redesigned to support better physical activity.

Kriellaars is the first to admit there are no easy fixes to the problem. But if parents start learning more about the problem, they will be able to take steps to fix it.

Kristine Hayward is a physical activity promotion co-ordinator with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

Activities that encourage physical literacy

HERE are some ways you can help your child become more physically literate:

  • Speak to your child's physical education / health teacher to see where they are strong or need work, and what suggestions they have to support their development of these skills.
  • Encourage active, unstructured, outdoor play.
  • Practise tossing and catching items. Start with a softer, larger ball and move to smaller objects and balls that bounce. Use what you have... a rolled-up sock or a ball made out of crumpled newspaper. Try throwing with each hand -- overhand and underhand. Aim at a laundry basket or garbage can. Start catching with two hands and then with one.
  • Try activities in different environments like sliding or skating on ice and snow. Visit your local arena during public skating or sign up for skating lessons.
  • Practise moving in water. Visit your local pool or sign up for swimming lessons.
  • Jump through the air. Practise cartwheels and rolls. Join a gymnastics club.
  • Create an obstacle course in your yard or living room. Climb over a chair, under the table. Hop down the hallway and jump over a scarf. The options are endless.
  • Practise balance. Stand on one foot. Walk along a curb.
  • Play skipping or hopping games. Hopscotch and jumping rope can be fun and go a long way to developing a variety of skills.
  • Provide opportunities for games that involve striking, such as road hockey, tennis or baseball. Play a pickup game of hockey in the driveway. Head to a local park with a bat and ball to play a game of 500.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 27, 2013 A27