Canadian kids aren’t just inactive but lack the fundamental movement skills, knowledge and motivation to engage in physical activities and play, according to a new study.
The study, led by researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, examined more than 10,000 children aged 8-12 across Canada over three years and found that only one-third of kids meet what is thought to be a basic level of physical literacy.
That means that most kids lack skills like throwing a ball and perform below expectations in aerobic tests, don’t get enough physical activity and what’s more — they don’t want to.
This can have big effects on their health down the road, according to Dr. Mark Tremblay, director of healthy active living and obesity research at the CHEO Research Institute, who worked on the project.
“We know that kids today are less active than they used to be. They’re less fit than they used to be. They’re heavier than they used to be. They’re more sedentary than they used to be,” he said.
“We know all of those characteristics track and will precipitate premature morbidity and mortality.”
Because “physical literacy” is a new measure, they don’t have data to track its progress over time, but Tremblay says there has been a “dramatic decline” in physical activity and competence levels. For example, a Statistics Canada studyconcluded that from 2007 to 2009, children were “taller, heavier, fatter and weaker,” than in 1981.
The way kids entertain themselves has also changed. “I swear, I spent most of my childhood playing catch,” Tremblay said. “I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen kids in the park doing this.”
“I’m 57 and the worst penalty you would get as a kid in my generation as a kid was getting grounded. You know what that means: you’re not allowed to go out. And it’s just comical. Because it has absolutely no meaning in the world of a kid today. They don’t go out anyways.”
Screen time has “certainly” changed how kids play, said Melanie Davis, executive director and CEO of Physical & Health Education Canada, an organization that promotes better physical education.
“There’s no doubt about that. And there’s a lot of positives that come from being so literate in that area. But what parents, educators and communities need to ensure is that it doesn’t come at a cost to their physical literacy or their physical health.”
Leigh Vanderloo of ParticipACTION said outdoor, unstructured play used to be “huge.”
Now, she said, kids spend less time outside and when they do, it’s often spent playing organized sports.
“They’re losing these opportunities to just engage in active play where they can develop some of these imaginative skills, where they learn a lot of social skills. Also their risk-taking and knowing their own personal limitations and challenging themselves, they’re not getting those same exposures.”
“It’s probably not surprising if you were a parent saying, ‘Go play outside,’ that they would be like, ‘What do we do? What are we supposed to do outside?’ Whereas if we look back a couple of decades, it was probably a no-brainer.”
Tremblay agrees. “I don’t know the trends in throwing and catching, but they are unable to just invent games like we were able to.”
“You need a coach, you need a score clock, you need a uniform. You need someone, some parent or some authority figure to organize it for you. That certainly has been lost.”
Unstructured play has changed, but that’s not necessarily all bad, said Davis. But, “I think that the constraints about risk associated with play need to be looked at so that they are not creating barriers for kids to engage in things that they would naturally do.”
If you tell kids it’s too unsafe to climb trees, which is something they naturally want to do, “Yeah there’s probably going to be children who grow up who have never climbed trees.”
Similarly, a child never learning to swim or ride a bike means that those activities are out of their adult repertoire, said Tremblay. “You have a reduced number of recreational opportunities available to you.”
Parents can help encourage their kids to spend more time playing outside by being active themselves and as a family, Vanderloo said. Things like walking the dog as a family and playing catch together can not only help kids move but underscore the value of physical activity in daily life.
And it should be fun too, she said. “We often overlook that fact but the fun factor is a huge thing.”