‘Young children need to run around until they are exhausted’ – quoted by Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman. Her concerns were echoed by Gill Jones, Ofsted deputy director of early education, when she spoke at a recent Conference about the creation of ‘overly risk-free environments’ as reported in AOL.
With increasing changes to lifestyle and new social norms around being sedentary becoming widespread, we now have children dying five years earlier than the previous generation due to inactivityi. Children are spending more time sitting down or not moving at a higher frequency than ever before. Prolonged periods sat down actually starts the ageing process early in children even as young as the age of six, hardening the arteries and creating inflammation in the system.
Only 10% of children aged 2-5 are believed to be achieving the Chief Medical Officer’s recommendations for 180 minutes of physical activity every dayii, which creates an obvious focus on the role of early year’s providers and parents. So what role can they play and how do we make it easy for them?
Early years are critical for instilling a love of moving and the necessary building blocks for children to move well and move more. Physical activity is critical for children’s physical and emotional development and specifically for brain function. The evidence is clear; increased physical activity and reduced sitting time will have a direct impact on wellbeing and ultimately result in increased cognition and achievement.iii
At the same time we have increasing numbers of children accessing free child care and an absolute focus on ensuring children are achieving a good level of development by the end of their reception year. Many settings are stretched, resources and funding is limited and not enough emphasis can be placed on the physical development of the child. So what’s the answer?
We need to create a new norm for children. We must incorporate physical activity and a love of moving and play into children’s normal day as well as an environment that allows for freedom of movement. We therefore need parents and practitioners role modelling active behaviours and reducing sitting time and delivering the EYFS framework in an active way. Why shouldn’t The Gruffalo create active play opportunities rather than be read with children sat on the carpet? Take the carpet away... in fact take all the chairs away as well!
From birth, encourage tummy time and free up the limbs. Don’t confine children to car seats, high chairs and push chairs or sit them in front of the TV because it is convenient and creates less hassle. Grow children and give them the ABCs of agility, balance and co-ordination. Grow children to have the foundations of movement and physical literacy.
Physical literacy is described as “the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding that provides children with the movement foundation for lifelong participation in physical activity”. Enabling children to be physically literate supports their social and emotional development and creates healthy movers.
And yet many children, particularly those from our poorer communities, don’t enter primary school with this foundation of movement. As a result we are confined to a society that has to constantly intervene to address physical and emotional health issues throughout childhood and into adult life due to inactivity and poor development.
I believe that children are losing the love of moving and play as they go through the primary years. As a parent of three children I recognise the constraints and pressures that are placed on them. We restrict their opportunity to take risks, to play and we insist that they conform to the ’rules of the family unit’.
I feel we need to remove the barriers to being active. If we do we will reap the benefits of a socially mobile and healthy generation of children that don’t grow up to be overweight, emotionally unwell or worse; die 5 years younger than the generation that preceded them. And I do believe the early years of a child’s life are critical for getting this right!
*Chris Wright is Head of Wellbeing at the Youth Sport Trust. It has developed a suite of resources called Healthy Movers and you can find out more at www.healthymovers.org
[i] Nike Designed to Move (2012)
[ii] Early Years Physical Activity Manifesto – British Heart Foundation National Centre (2016)
[iii] Start Active, Stay Active – Chief Medical Officers Report (2011)