Physical education often gets overlooked when compared to other, more academic based subjects, when in fact it is the only subject to truly engage the child’s body, mind and spirit. It offers a holistic learning experience which promotes not only physical health but contributes to the individual’s holistic well-being.
One of the biggest challenges we are currently facing is that we are seeing a massive decline in activity as children move into the teenage phase, with only 1 in 5 teenagers meeting the international guideline for daily moderate to vigorous physical activity for children, aged 6-17 years, which is a minimum of 60 minutes every day. The continued drop in activity levels as children grow older is alarming as it also has an adverse effect on their sport participation and healthy lifestyle practices into adulthood.
The world is current facing an obesity crisis and it can be said that a correlation between obesity and inactivity exists. Technology is a dominant factor in today’s lifestyle and one of the reasons why children are becoming more inactive than ever before. Easy access to low-cost fast foods coupled with a more sedentary lifestyle is causing obesity levels to soar, as well as the health implications which are associated with it. According to a study published by the American Academy of Paediatrics in 2018, the obesity rate increased in all age groups among children ages 2-19 years. This generally increased with age, with 41.5% of teens being obese by the age of 16 to 19 years old. Another study in 2018 also researched 7822 children at the age of over 3 years also founded the rate of inactivity concerning as 50% of the children was found to be insufficiently active and 5% reported no physical activity. Lastly, a more recent study in 2020, performed by the American Heart Association, found that 60% of American children had inadequate levels of cardio-respiratory fitness.
According to the latest HAKSA 2018 Report Card in South Africa, between 41% and 60% of South African children and youth succeed in meeting the international standard of 60 minutes of physical activity daily. The levels of physical activity appear to be much higher in younger children, compared to older children. In some of the studies, 100% of pre-school aged children (2-6 years old) met the recommended guidelines, with a study from a rural area showing that 78% of children between the age of 2-6 years old met the requirements. Screen time has however increased with studies finding that South African children spend on average just over 3 hours on screens per day. Only a third of children met the screen time recommendation for their age.
In order to address this issue, one has to start looking at what happens earlier in an individual’s life in terms of proper physical education. This window of opportunity is important, not only to provide an opportunity to be active, but also to maximise this opportunity by offering a structured and specialised program from a very young age. This becomes particularly important at the foundation phase level when children are developing at the highest rate. Children as young as 2 years old can start participating in a structured physical development program with great success. Early physical development becomes particularly important as this can provide an opportunity to stimulate four essential areas of development namely physical, motor, sensory and perceptual development all during a single session. Programs therefore need to offer more than just a ‘being active’ opportunity. Emphasis needs to be placed on developing the child holistically and systematically to ensure that the foundation of movement is laid properly. When children are consistently exposed to physical activity in a fun yet structured way it forms healthy habits which will be taken into their adulthood. According to the Physical Activity Council of America, children who have physical education in school are twice as likely to be active outside of the physical education class and become active adults.
Regular physical education classes mean children can access the myriad of benefits exercise provides as well as the additional benefits physical education offers such as teaching resilience, persistence, positive and critical thinking. It also offers educational benefits such as enhanced concentration, attention and classroom behaviour. It teaches kids about a healthy lifestyle and also improves mental health. Being active, fit and able to compete in multiple sports will increase long term sport participation which will improve personal and social skills, health skills, build leadership and teach teamwork. All of which is vital in becoming well balanced adults, who are not only healthy but are also equipped to deal with everyday life and the challenges that comes with it.
Physical education can offer all of this neatly packaged in one program. It is time to start placing emphasis on the physical well-being of the next generation as it plays an enormous role in their holistic well-being. As John F. Kennedy once said, “Physical Fitness is the basis for all other forms of excellence.”
Written by Mario Penwarden (Executive Head of Kinetix)