This article was originally published by The Globe and Mail in September of 2014.
Although it may seem a bit counterintuitive, we must teach kids how to move. Humans are born with the capacity to move, but not the skills to do so.
Think about swimming the front crawl as an example. Most of us are born with the ability to stroke the water with our arms, kick our legs and turn our heads to the side, but we have to be taught these skills in order to be able to swim. The same is true for all “movement skills” that we believe are innate, such as running, jumping, and throwing.
Most of us have experienced this learning process through the games we played as kids. It was simple: Go outside, join whatever game was going on, watch the older kids and do what they did. If the game was kick the can, you learned to kick. If it was hide and seek or tag, you learned to twist, turn, and zigzag as you ran. Scrub baseball taught us how to pitch, catch, and strike a ball with a stick.
Without knowing it, as our skills grew, so did our confidence and our enjoyment. And that was magical, because when kids learn to love moving early in life they tend to remain active for the rest of their lives.
For centuries, the system worked perfectly: Children’s search for pleasure led them to play games and through play they learned the movement skills needed to survive. But today the system is backfiring.
One reason is kids’ inherent desire to seek fun and pleasure, not movement skills, per se. Like past generations, kids are born programmed to play, but the games they play have changed.
My childhood was filled with active games that helped me become an active person. Today’s kids learn sedentary games. They learn to handle a joystick, a keyboard, and smartphones. The village still teaches kids to play, but today’s games have little to do with moving well.
Furthermore, a perfect storm of factors have combined to create an environment in which most parents are fearful for the safety of their children, so they drive them everywhere and more or less encourage them to spend more time indoors than out. Consequently, we have ended up with the most inactive generation in history.
What are we to do? How can we help our kids learn and enjoy moving instead of becoming sedentary for life? One thing is clear: We have to adopt a different perspective than our own parents.
We have to come to terms with a few things:
1. Acknowledge that inactivity is the new norm and it’s making kids sick
The level of physical activity has dropped dramatically over just a few generations. As a result, we are faced with a near-epidemic level of child obesity. A growing number of kids suffer what used to be “adult diseases” such as high cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure. As experts warn us, sitting is the new smoking.
2. Accept that we need to help our kids develop movement skills
This is called physical literacy and it’s about developing the fundamental movement skills that all children need, such as running, hopping, throwing, catching and jumping. These skills give kids the confidence to participate in different physical activities, sports, and games for a lifetime.
3. Physical literacy depends on awareness from parents
Like learning a language, physical literacy is best developed from a young age. Parents who want to help their kids develop physical literacy don’t have to do anything more than what most parents want to do anyway: Spend a bit of time with their children doing activities they enjoy. Like reading, kids who develop their skills early will most likely keep going. The reward for helping your kids develop physical literacy is that you don’t need to send them outside to play; they will go on their own.
4. Physical literacy is essential for all kids, not just athletes in the making
I like the term “physical literacy” because it emphasizes that it’s not just about developing athletes. Physical literacy leads to kids being more skilled, confident, and motivated to move. Children who are physically competent are also better off cognitively, emotionally, and socially. Learning to be comfortable in your body is essential for the athlete, but also the rocket scientist or budding writer.
5. Engage the village
Parents can’t do it alone. If kids are to move more, not less, then going forward the entire village has to step up. Communities need to activate. Governments have to make physical literacy a priority and schools have to increase physical education, not cut it. These institutions will change their ways if we — the parents — speak up.
It is hard to believe that we have arrived at a point where we need to help children learn to move, but here we are. It is time to take on the task and help our kids. It takes a village to teach the right skills essential to a better life.