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Canadian kids are getting a D-minus in physical activity

The latest ParticipACTION Report Card examines kids’ overall physical activity and, for the first time, grades their movement skills. There’s a lot of room for improvement.

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Are our kids getting enough physical activity? Over on our Facebook page, we chatted with ParticipACTION’s Dr. Allana LeBlanc about the findings of the 2016 ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth and got your questions answered—watch the interview now.

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Six-year-old Aislinn Frank is dribbling a basketball across a gym floor at the Vivo for Healthier Generations recreation centre in Calgary, along with 12 other kindergarteners.

“Okay, now raise the ball above your head,” directs the instructor. “Can you move it in a circle around your head? Good. Now, around your body.”

Aislinn manipulates the ball with a big smile. She’s flushed and out of breath, and clearly enjoying herself. Over the past four months she’s been learning to ice skate, swim, tumble, and play gym-based games like this one, as a participant in Vivo’s 4-in-1 program, which teaches physical literacy skills to children.

The program’s creator, Mount Royal University movement education instructor Nadine Van Wyk, says the goal is to expose kids to a variety of games and sports to get them sliding, splashing, swinging, balancing, throwing, running and kicking their way to mastering the movement skills necessary for them to become active adults.

But as the latest ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth, released today, shows, not all Canadian children are as active or physically literate as young Aislinn. Not only are our kids receiving a failing grade in overall physical activity—scoring a D-minus in that category for the fourth year in a row—they’re also struggling with physical literacy, which was graded for the first time and only earned a D-plus. A third of kids are also sleep-deprived. More on that here.

“Physical literacy” is an educators’ term for how comfortable and adept a kid is with basic movement skills like running, jumping, balancing, kicking and catching. According to the Report Card, only 44 percent of eight- to 12-year-olds meet the minimum recommended level of physical literacy. This means our children are almost failing when it comes to mastering the stability, motor and eye-hand and eye-foot coordination skills that are crucial for engaging in and maintaining physical activity throughout childhood and later in life.

Educators, coaches and gym teachers realize this is a problem. After all, how can we expect children and youth to be physically active if some of the building blocks of movement are missing from their locomotion library? For this reason, more physical literacy programs like the one at Vivo centre are starting to pop up across the country.

“Physical literacy is one of those things that’s pretty foundational as a pathway for our society to be more physically active,” says Drew Mitchell, director of physical literacy for Sport for Life, an organization that helped author Canada’s Physical Literacy Consensus Statement in June 2015. “In many ways, physical literacy has been the missing link. It’s one of the pieces that hasn’t been well addressed.”

What exactly is physical literacy?
The International Physical Literacy Association defines physical literacy as, “the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life.”

In layman’s terms, physical literacy is fairly simple. It’s about developing basic movement skills in children so they’ll have the confidence to participate in active play, games and sports for life. For most parents, though, it’s a relatively new idea.

A big part of physical literacy is learning and mastering stability, locomotor and manipulative skills such as balancing and spinning, running and climbing, and throwing and catching. Another part of it is psychosocial: It’s wanting to participate in games and physical activities because you’re confident in your skills and because you understand the basics of a variety of sports and leisure pursuits.

Why is physical literacy important?
“When we teach kids the alphabet, we don’t stop at the letter M,” says James Mandigo, a professor in the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences at Brock University, who has been a driving force behind raising awareness of physical literacy in Canada.

“It’s the same with physical literacy—we want to teach them lots of different movement skills so they can take part in lots of activities in different environments. That’s why we discourage kids against specializing too early in one sport, because they lose out.”

Experts look at physical literacy as a foundation that makes participation in future sports and activities more enjoyable. For example, before children can play soccer, they have to be taught how to kick and pass the ball, block shots, intercept, run and work with the other players on their team.

“You’re not going to all of a sudden wake up and know how to be a good soccer player. You have to be taught these skills,” says Allana LeBlanc, an exercise specialist at ParticipACTION. “When kids learn these skills early, and think they’re good at something, they’re going to want to do it more often and that’s true in all facets of life, not just sports.”

Of course, not all kids take to organized sports, but it’s still important that they become comfortable with and proficient at play and moving, whether outdoors or inside.

“It’s not always about sweating,” says Van Wyk, of the principles underlying the 4-in-1 physical literacy program she developed. “It’s also about incorporating simple ideas into everyday living.”

Van Wyk sends program participants home with ideas for incorporating movement skills into everyday activities. For example, kids can practice balancing on one foot when standing in line at the store, tossing dirty clothes into the hamper from a distance, brushing teeth and hair with their non-dominant hand or jumping up the stairs and then walking down backwards.

Parents can also encourage non-conventional ways to practice physical literacy skills. They can host impromptu kitchen dance parties, initiate games of Simon Says or suggest longer daily walks with the family dog with a stop to throw a Frisbee in the park.

These skills begin to build upon one another because many of them are transferable between sports and activities. So once a child learns how to hit a softball, for example, it will be easier to learn how to connect with a tennis ball or golf ball. The same goes for kids who develop a passion for dancing, jumping or balancing—they can apply those skills in other pursuits such as gymnastics, skiing, scootering or trampolining.

What’s more, research has shown that without the basic building blocks of movement, kids choose to withdraw from sport and turn to more sedentary activities during their leisure time. On the flip side, studies show that children who have good motor skills at age six, are more active during leisure time at age 26.

Physical literacy must be taught, “Otherwise, the natural landing spot is in front of the computer,” says Mitchell.

But don’t kids just learn all those skills through active play and gym class?

When we were kids we developed physical literacy in our free time by walking to school, riding bikes with our friends, building forts, climbing trees, playing pick up ball hockey in the street or making up games in the park before dark.

“We were developing it organically,” says Mitchell. “Kids today, unfortunately, don’t have those experiences.”

Most children are now bussed or driven to school. According to the Report Card, only 24 percent of kids aged 11 to 15 walk to school and only two percent in this age group bike to school. A lot of parents also worry about safety and have rules in place about how far their kids can wander around the neighbourhood, whether alone or with friends. If the backyard becomes the boundary, older kids get bored and gravitate toward video games. According to the Report Card, only 24 percent of children are meeting the screen time guidelines, which means that the majority are watching too much Netflix and YouTube or spending too many hours playing Minecraft.

At the same time, Mitchell says that many schools—which were once a major delivery mechanism for physical literacy through gym class—have devalued physical education to the point where all kids are doing is jogging around a field or playing dodge ball. Some schools may still have gym class, but not necessarily a dedicated gym teacher, so a regular teacher has to come up with activities. Some schools have shortened recess. And some experts (and parents!) feel today’s playgrounds are now designed to be so safe that they’re too boring for kids to actually have fun.

“Kids may be running around, doing what we call ‘basic activity,’ but there’s very little skill development going on, and certainly not any intentional skill development,” says Mitchell. “You can develop a great PE curriculum, but you need the right teachers to implement it.”

Mitchell says schools have great potential to deliver quality physical education, but sometimes need a nudge from parents, whether it’s in the form of fundraising to cover costs for more variety in programming (like a hip-hop teacher residency), or parent volunteers willing to share their expertise: Maybe there’s a parent in the community who is a qualified yoga teacher, or someone who played basketball in university and is willing to teach a free workshop.

Children now mainly learn physical literacy skills through structured programs; in fact, 77 percent of 5- to 19-year-olds participate in organized physical activities. However, it’s often just one sport, such as hockey or soccer, rather than a program that teaches skills across a variety of activities.

“Kids learn a lot of manipulative skills, they play a lot of games. But they don’t do enough (stability) things like dance, gymnastics, or lifelong fitness activities like skiing or snowshoeing,” says Mandigo.

So don’t discount non-competitive sports. At the same time, look beyond programming—there’s a lot of skill building that happens during recreational family activities like swimming at the lake, hitting the skate park or trying mountain biking on your local trails.

What can we do to help children develop physical literacy?

The obvious starting point is with parents, who need to get engaged in what’s happening around their children’s physical literacy and activity levels. They can suggest and provide opportunities for physical activities, by modeling them or signing kids up for programs. They should also really listen to what their children want to do (for example, quit hockey and take up karate). If kids express an interest, encourage them to try it.

Make movement part of the family lifestyle. Go for after-dinner walks or weekend hikes, bike rides or canoe paddles. In the winter, indoor activities like visiting a rock climbing gym or playing 3D indoor mini golf could be big hits.

“Being active doesn’t have to be expensive or programmed. It can be spontaneous and fun,” says Mandigo. Parents can also loosen the reins and empower kids to get outside and play in whatever way they feel like. Send them to the local playground with a ball of any kind and see what happens. Once you plant some ideas, they’ll make up their own active games.

“It’s hurting our kids not to have some free-range time,” says Mitchell. “It shouldn’t be by luck that kids are born into a family or neighbourhood where they get a free-range experience. It should be part of what we do as a society.”

Another challenge is that physical literacy is such a new area of study that there’s not yet a benchmark for what, exactly, a physically literate child looks like.

Experts know that 60 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous intensity exercise is the “line in the sand” for physical activity for kids aged five to 12, but there isn’t a guideline for physical literacy yet—outlining just how skilled a child should be with movement.

“We haven’t landed on a perfect way to measure it,” says LeBlanc.

In the meantime, parents need to start taking physical literacy as seriously as they do their children’s ABCs and 123s.

Fun and easy ways to work on physical literacy skills every day:

Nadine Van Wyk suggests incorporating simple, fun activities into everyday living.

  • Hop: After breakfast, have kids hop toward finishing their morning routine. Remember to hop equally between the right and left legs.
  • Catch: Throw children snacks such as apples, and other backpack items like hats, instead of packing them away for them.
  • Walk: Develop balance during daily walks by following along sidewalk cracks as if they are a balance beam.
  • Balance: When standing in line at the grocery store, practice balancing on one foot and periodically switch feet.
  • Toss: While folding laundry, toss rolled socks into the air and catch them with the non-dominant hand.
  • Shoot, score: Throw dirty clothing into the hamper by shooting from several feet away. Increase the distance as kids’ accuracy improves.
  • Kick: On the walk home from school, dribble a rock or can along the sidewalk, or pass it between children using only feet.
  • Jump: With older kids, have them jump up the stairs two or three at a time, then walk down backwards.
  • Brush: Challenge them to brush their teeth or hair with their non-dominant hand, then switch to actually clean the teeth and get out the tangles.

More ways to encourage physical literacy:

  1. Play outside with your kids. “Being active doesn’t have to be expensive or programmed. It can be spontaneous and fun,” says James Mandigo, a professor in health sciences at Brock University. Go for a walk or bike ride, hit a tennis ball against the garage door or have an impromptu dance party where you demonstrate your 80s dance moves.
  2. Empower children to play outside on their own. Give them boundaries and guidelines and send them to the local playground to throw grounders, or to the park with a soccer ball. Plant some ideas and they’ll make up their own active games. “It’s hurting our kids not to have some free-range time,” says Drew Mitchell, director of physical literacy for Sport for Life.
  3. Engage with your child’s school. Encourage a range of sports and games beyond dodge ball. Mitchell says schools have great potential to deliver quality physical education, but sometimes need a nudge from parents, whether it’s help to fundraise for special programs, or parent volunteers willing to share their expertise (maybe a parent is a yoga teacher, or coaches softball).
  4. Encourage your kids to try new sports or activities every year. Mandigo says to talk with them about what they want to do, and to not feel guilty if they want to drop hockey and take up karate instead (they probably aren’t going to the NHL, anyway).
  5. Search out physical literacy programming. The 4-in-1 program at Calgary’s Vivo for Healthier Generations centre is one example; Mitchell says these types of community programs are becoming more common.

Read more:

How to give your older kid more freedom
15 ways to keep kids active indoors (even if you don’t have much space)
Move it! 7 adorable ways to work out as a family
Are you over-scheduling your child?