Silken Laumann is a celebrated Olympian who competed for Canada in rowing at four Olympic summer games. Now a mother, speaker, and author, she works to inspire others to overcome obstacles and achieve their goals. She is also passionate about children’s health and the importance of play. She is an international board member with Right To Play, a Kid’s Champion for GoodLife Kids Foundation, and the best-selling author of Child’s Play: Rediscovering the Joy of Play in Our Families and Communities.
AfL: What inspired you to start writing and speaking about kids’ physical activity?
It’s always been an important issue for me, raising my own kids to not only make sure that they were active but that we did everything we could to create a sense of community through physical activity.
AfL: Your kids are now in their late teens. What kinds of activities have they done over the years?
When the children were young, we always kept the focus on play. I’ve always been a believer in play being a foundational activity that promotes a lifelong love of movement. So I wasn’t interested in getting them into organized sports so much when they were young.
We did all sorts of things from driveway road hockey to play in the park. I used to help organize “Play in the Park” nights in our community. We sent flyers around our neighborhood to say we would be at the park on Monday evenings, and that everyone was free to come and play. We would often have 30-40 kids out on a Monday night.
That was a strong childhood memory for all of my kids. We’d play capture the flag with the whole neighborhood, and we rode our bikes and we went on walks. Eventually the kids did start doing sports.
It’s been awesome to see their progression through play — it just makes such a natural progression for them.
AfL: That is a big theme in the world of physical literacy — the idea of the progression and the development over time — moving from child’s play and then maybe eventually going into some type of sport, and maybe even high-performance sport. Can you talk a little more about that?
I think that we’ve created in our communities the idea of sport as an all-or-nothing thing. If kids get involved in a sport, and then show any talent at all, they’re asked to do that sport more, and then by the time they’re 12, they’ve quit that sport. I see it over and over again.
And then the kids who aren’t identified early on as having the same amount of talent aren’t given the same attention. They aren’t given the same amount of play opportunity, and they become discouraged and quit the sport.
We’re seeing this huge drop-off in how physically active kids are by about 13, which I think is the time they should be starting sports. So it’s completely backwards, the way that we’ve created community sport, and I think we really need to look at the opportunities we provide for our kids to just play and be kids.
AfL: What kinds of opportunities or changes do you think are needed?
As a community, we need to start to create initiatives — not even programs — like play in the park nights, or road hockey night. As parents, we can play a much more positive and proactive role in not just driving our kids to a sport, but actually connecting with neighbors and friends to create play in our communities, and let the sport wait until later on.
And when the sport does start, we need to find a balance. There’s always going to be young athletes who want to take sport to the very highest level, and I believe we should be supporting that and encouraging that. But most kids will never play sport at a high level and we want to give them positive experiences — a place that’s safe, a place with opportunities to play beyond the field, and a chance to have a level of coaching that matches their skill development.
AfL: When you talk about having positive experiences, what do you envision as being the hallmarks of a positive experience for children?
I think first and foremost it has to be fun. When you lose that, you’re going to lose these kids — they’re not going to stick with it. So that has to be there.
I think there also has to be fairness. Fairness is very important for kids. I guess this is more for sport, but the idea that they’re playing on a level playing field — they’re given a fair opportunity. I think that’s important.
I also think it’s important that there be opportunities to build camaraderie so that there’s a social side of it. So it’s not only fun, but they’re actually meeting new people and they’re having time to play and interact with these new friends.
I think that there needs to be some degree of challenge — a challenge appropriate to their skill level — so it’s not too easy, and not too hard. You’re going to lose a kid if they’re bored or if you’re setting unrealistic expectations.
And I guess a feeling of progression. I think kids want to see that they’ve gone from here to there. They want to see how much they’ve improved.
AfL: Would you have any final suggestions for parents on raising their kids to be physically active?
Use your imagination, use your own skills, use as many ways as possible to create opportunities for kids to play. Don’t worry about the house being messy. It’s more important that the kids are moving and having fun
I think we start kids so early in structured activities, and I passionately believe that kids need more unstructured play in their early years.