Saturday 19 October 2019

'Traditional' playground games best for children's health

Research shows that children who play outside and partake in the old, traditional street games are healthiest, writes Ailin Quinlan

A step in the right direction: games are hugely beneficial
A step in the right direction: games are hugely beneficial

Ailin Quinlan

Put out some skipping ropes, a ball and a stick of chalk and just watch what your small children can do with these simple, traditional toys, suggests Dr Sarahjane Belton, Head of the School of Health and Human Performance at Dublin City University.

Providing some of the right kind of equipment and space can have a noticeable impact on the level of physical activity our children enjoy, she says.

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The comments follow new research that shows children who play with traditional toys such as skipping ropes, and who have access to ordinary playground equipment are more likely to meet physical activity recommendations,

Published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, the research was carried out by experts at the University of Queensland in Australia. They found that when it came to children aged between five and 17, the healthiest youngsters were those who played on swings, roundabouts and trampolines rather than with newer toys or gadgets.

The study found that children who had access to traditional equipment met the World Health Organisation's recommendation of 60 minutes per day of daily exercise on more days than those who took part in activities such as playing computer games.

However, it acknowledged that with the decreasing size of family backyards, children's play was "going inside" - which means families increasingly rely on playgrounds, parks and other public spaces.

"Fundamentally," says Dr Belton, the issues highlighted in this study are replicated in Ireland and across the world.

While many communities in Ireland do have playgrounds, she says, there is less perceived 'safe' public space for children to play.

"The lack of adequate adjacent safe green space for modern children today is an issue across Ireland and the world," observes Dr Belton, who points to the Active School Flag Initiative at primary level.

"It is about schools making changes in terms of the physical activity in their environments - changing school structures, policies and practises. Even small changes can make a massive difference in children's habits," she points out, adding that it's also beneficial to introduce children to traditional play activities such as skipping or traditional chasing games such as What Time Is It, Mr Wolf?

When her children were young, Rita O'Reilly and another mother regularly visited the local primary school to teach children traditional activities such as skipping and ball-throwing. It was a hugely popular initiative, the Parentline chief executive recalls.

"These games are good for exercise, for getting fresh air, for developing coordination and also for friendship," says O'Reilly, who believes parents should lead by example and get to know their local environment in terms of what it can offer their kids:

"If you live near a beach or a park, bring them regularly," she suggests.

"Just get them outside - it doesn't cost anything," she adds. In recent years, she reveals, Parentline, the national helpline for parents, has experienced a rise in the number of parents reporting outbursts of anger and aggression in children, something which, O'Reilly says, the organisation attributes to a combination of factors including lack of exercise, lack of traditional social interaction, lack of sleep and lack of regular meals.

READ MORE: Rewild your child: why families need to reconnect with nature

"Traditional play equipment such as skipping ropes, balls, chalk, climbing frames, and swings are not expensive and have been tried and tested over generations," observes O'Reilly.

Parents "simply have to take the responsibility of engaging kids in physical activity and creating opportunities for them to be physically active," warns Dr Belton.

"Being active in childhood is a huge factor in children themselves being active in later life, whether you are kicking a football, going for a walk, cycle or run, or swim. It doesn't matter what you do as long as you are active with your child and that you develop the habit of physical activity with your child."

Cork GAA games development manager Kevin O'Callaghan and his staff are all too familiar with the results of today's sedentary childhoods.

The GAA is now regularly dealing with children who have "very little or no motor skills and, by and large, a very poor grasp basic motor skills," O'Callaghan warns.

His comments come in the wake of the latest research commissioned by Sport Ireland, Sport Northern Ireland and Healthy Island, which found that just 17pc of children at primary level and 10pc of post-primary students, are active enough to meet the recommended physical activity guidelines.

Earlier this year, says O'Callaghan, Rebel Óg, the GAA's underage division in Co Cork, launched a Fundamental Movement Skills Programme.

Under the scheme, six GAA development officers go into primary schools to teach basic motor skills such as running, jumping, throwing and catching to children from Junior Infants through to Second Class.

It's the first ever structured and coordinated programme teaching fundamental movement skills that the GAA has run in the region, O'Callaghan says. Its mission is to combat the problems caused by a modern lifestyle which normalises sedentary habits and heavy use of tech devices.

"You see children as young and three and four on mobile phones and watching YouTube, where in the past they would have been out running around," he says.

"As a result they're coming into primary school without basic physical skills and many are not acquiring them in school either - maybe there's not as much of an emphasis on PE as there could be," he observes.

To date 56 schools have signed up to the new programme, says O'Callaghan. The workshops are carried out in the teacher's presence so that he or she can reinforce the skills with pupils until the development officer returns, some weeks later to begin the next phase of the programme.

When it comes to the under-fives, explains Aileen Flynn, a clinical specialist physiotherapist in musculo-skeletal care at the Beacon Hospital in Dublin, the recommended 60 minutes of daily physical exercise can be achieved through unstructured exercise, which usually just means play.

"This is where children can enjoy traditional toys - for example, with the under- fives it's all about the fundamental movement skills such as squatting, jumping, running and climbing," she says.

"This can take the form of play in the back garden and also under supervision in the playground.

"You don't need very large spaces or special equipment for young children to run, jump, hop or roll. This can take place in the house or in small backyards, and in public facilities such as playgrounds.

"Ireland has an abundance of public playgrounds, parks and outdoor exercise equipment. Use these resources and don't let weather be a barrier. Remember, there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing," she advises.

Being able to squat, jump, roll and hop are all milestones a young child should master, she warns.

"It is critical for muscles, joint and bone development as well as overall posture that they exercise regularly and for 60 minutes a day through unstructured play or sports.

"More and more, people are living in smaller homes and apartments with not much space so you have to make the effort to get outside and go where the space is and where the amenities are, whether it's a local playground or a park, and be creative with what you have."

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