Kids are less fit than ever

school girls behind bars
CC BY 2.0 Tom Hart

Teachers, therapists, and researchers are all worried about the decline in physical ability in young children.

Preschoolers are less fit than they were just six years ago. A small study of 45 four-year-olds, conducted by the University of Loughborough in the UK, found one-third to be “of concern” for lacking motor skills and reflexes. Up to 90 percent had unusual difficulties with movement, considering their age. When researchers spoke to preschool teachers, 80 percent said they had identified “a sudden decline in physical mobility happening within the past three to six years.”

Something very scary is going on if young children, who are supposed to be vigorously active, energetic, and incessantly mobile, are turning into what Lenore Skenazy of Free Range Kids calls “middle-aged slugs.”

The problem is complex. Teachers worry about lack of physical ability because it means children are unprepared for school. Dr. Rebecca Duncombe, who led the study, told The Independent:

“A child’s physical development level impacts their ability to complete simple tasks such as sitting still, holding a pencil, putting on their shoes, and especially reading – all skills essential for school.”

Pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom sees similar problems in the children she works with – kids who have been so damaged by over-safety-proofing that they exhibit underdeveloped muscles and senses. Hanscom believes that the lack of physical activity, especially quintessentially childlike movements such as spinning and hanging upside down, is causing increased aggressiveness in schools, inability to focus, and a rise in tripping accidents, falls, and injuries. She wrote for the Washington Post:

“We [therapists] encourage children to go upside down, to jump off objects, to climb to new heights and spin in circles to give them a better sense of body awareness. All of these rapid and changing movements shift the fluid around in the inner ear to develop a strong vestibular (balance) sense. A unifying sense, the vestibular system supports good body awareness, attention and emotional regulation. These skills are fundamental to learning in the classroom.”

Skenazy, while acknowledging the dangers of minimal play, has a slightly different take on it. She points out how ironic it is that “being able to use your body successfully makes kids more ready for exactly the kind of early and excessive schooling that may be creating the problem.”

She’s got a good point. Kids spend so much time engaged in sedentary activities that are perceived as valuable that they don’t have time (or permission) to move around. They’re not free to roam, to ride their bikes, to wrestle in the grass, to climb trees, to hang upside down on the monkey bars, to pummel each other with snowballs.

Instead, they are followed – more likely, guided – by concerned parents who fear injury above all else and who would prefer to sign them up for a host of clubs and tutors that (in their mistaken view) would put them further ahead in life than rolling in the dirt. Parents are also far too willing to hand over iPads and smartphones for kids to entertain themselves, rather than pushing them out the door to play.

Kids should be allowed to play freely, not just to do better at school, but because it’s the natural and right thing for them to do. It’s how they learn, feel happy, make friends, cope, and develop. Even Finland recently stepped away from the World Health Organization guidelines, which state that kids ages 5-17 should get one hour of physical activity daily, to mandate three hours of physical activity per day in schools, saying it will improve interaction skills, social connections, and health.

Regardless of the reasons for wanting it, the fact remains that children are sadly out of shape and are paying the price for adults’ unwillingness, thus far, to remedy the situation. The good news is that there’s an easy solution: Cancel the extracurriculars, the appointments, and the indoor playdates. Just let the kids play!

Kids are less fit than ever
Teachers, therapists, and researchers are all worried about the decline in physical ability in young children.

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