Sunday 26 March 2017

Let the children play: Is too much inactivity negatively impacting our children's lives

As Manchester United get the circus in to teach their Academy youths how to fall, our reporter looks at how sedentary lifestyles and coddling are impacting our kids

Active: Brian Curran, 7, gets to grips with a climbing wall in The Wall indoor climbing centre in Sandyford Photo: Bryan Meade
Active: Brian Curran, 7, gets to grips with a climbing wall in The Wall indoor climbing centre in Sandyford Photo: Bryan Meade
Brian Bliss of The Wall indoor climbing centre in Sandymount. Photo: Bryan Meade

Barbara Scully

It's already abundantly clear that children today spend much of their time indoors, usually being mesmerised by the virtual world, and that this inactivity is contributing to making them fat. According to Safe Food Ireland, one quarter of our children are overweight and many are not getting the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity they need every day to stay healthy.

However, it may come as a surprise to parents to know that this inactivity may be leading to further problems.

Former footballer Nicky Butt, who is the Manchester United Academy Chief, last week said that he's had to bring a team of circus performers in to spruce up his young charges.

"I see players in our academy and they can't move. Our lads don't know how to fall, roll, and you should see the amount of injuries we get from popped shoulders or their arms."

He went on to describe how he fell out of a tree probably about 15 times and never hurt himself compared to his son, who he thinks never climbed a tree.

So is there something else going on here that as parents we should be concerned about? Is our children's development being impacted negatively by their more sedentary lifestyles, and our concern about them hurting themselves?

Kilbogget Park in Cabinteely is a hive of activity on a Saturday morning, with kids of all ages playing and training in GAA and in soccer. Derek McArdle, who manages the Academy for Foxrock Cabinteely GAA Club, had just finished putting a group of four to eight-year-old's through their paces when I asked him had he seen any decline in young children's abilities in the 13 years he has been running the academy.

"The biggest difference I have seen is that kids today are softer. They come in looking for plasters on scratches I cannot even see."

Derek has a feeling that some parents are overly mollycoddling their young kids in a way they didn't in the past. The academy teaches youngsters catching, kicking, and passing, and Derek has also noticed a decline in children's ability to kick out of their hands.

"They can kick the ball on the ground but kicking out of their hands, a lot of kids today can't do that. I tell them they need to get out in the garden or the park and practice kicking the ball around".

What McArdle is encouraging his very young GAA players to do is 'unstructured play', a lack of which that Joanna Fortune, a child psychotherapist in Dublin, sees as a big issue for children today.

"Unstructured activity, like running about or kicking a ball, is something that until recently we would have assumed that young children are doing naturally, because it's their natural way of being," says Joanna.

"But in recent years with the increase of screen time for kid's entertainment, they are much more sedimentary and there is a huge drop in the unstructured physical activity.

"Many parents are great at taking their kids to structured activity, such as swimming or football, but the unstructured stuff is way down," she says.

And it is this unstructured activity that helps children to develop their gross motor skills, which is vital to their continued physical development and to building confidence.

Joanna goes on to explain that adults must provide the opportunity for children to practice these activities. But parents today don't spend as much time as before with their children and many children are in group care situations so the opportunity to run about, kicking, or jumping, is not there.

"Today's parents are also time poor," Joanna tells me. "They come home exhausted, like the kids, and they are just trying to get food on the table and the kids to bed with no time to get the kids outside for a while."

Could the lack of unstructured play a part in the development of language and speech? Pauline Ackermann, chairperson of the Irish Association of Speech and Language Therapists, tells me that "as far as I know there isn't any research as yet that had made an unequivocal link between a lot of screen time and delays in language development."

She goes on to say that "nor is there a causative or predictive relationship between motor development and language development. You can have difficulties in either area which are quite independent of each other."

However, research on something like a child's development can take a decade or more, so it is very important that we listen to what people working with our children are saying right now.

Aoife Raleigh is with 'Stretch and Grow', working with children in group care environments teaching them how to throw, catch and run about.

"These are the things we expect our kids to learn outdoors but playschools, crèches and even schools, especially in the city, often have very small outdoor areas and often the kids are not prepared for the weather so can't be taken outdoors".

Aoife is also involved with the Dublin Circus Project which has plans to introduce a children's programme in the future.

Michelle Bennett has three children and her son Jack, aged 10, is what might be called an old-fashioned kid. "From 10-months-old he was pulling down the standard lamp. He is always out. He practically has a football attached to his foot," she says.

Jack himself tells me that it would be torture for him if his mum insisted he stay in. "I do tell him he should be careful," she continues. "I've seen him climbing onto places that are a bit high and I tell him not to. It's hard not to put a stop to him."

Being outdoors and being physically active is something Michelle is very aware of and as a family they make it a priority. Jack's school is also very activity conscious. "They do fitness as part of their homework," says Michelle. "They have to write in their journal every night what fitness they have done in the day."

Like 'Stretch and Grow' for pre-schoolers, increasingly there are 'artificial' opportunities for children to experiment and test their physical limits.

Brian Bliss runs The Wall, which he describes as an indoor bouldering gym. "Bouldering is a kind of rock climbing that essentially only goes to about four metres height and below, instead of ropes for your safety you have a sea of padded mats so that when you climb, your safety is in your ability to do so in a controlled manner and the mats below."

Although initially conceived as an adult activity, Brian was very keen to get children involved in The Wall and so they have 15-20 one-hour slots in the week that are specifically for kids for six years up and teens from 14 to 17 years.

His philosophy is in keeping with this almost unconscious knowing that our children need to be free in their activity.

"When you have kids in The Wall we are anxious that they keep active", says Brian. "In other climbing gyms kids may have to take turns and have to sit down and wait in between.

"It doesn't seem natural for kids to have to sit and wait and we have enough instructors here so that we can have all the kids on the wall safely in an unstructured but supervised way."

Irish Independent

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