Active Kids Are Healthier Kids

lots-of-kids-with-screen-devices-612x300

Today’s parents grew up before the arrival of the smart phone or tablet. As a result, those who stop to think about it struggle to figure out what’s right to do. Especially with very young children it’s phenomenally tempting to let the device take the place of a child minder. Small children, once they have such a device in their hands, prove to be remarkably speedy learners. They can find their way around, delete things, download apps and open what interests them most. And they become so terribly passive, ‘well-behaved’ and docile, giving parents no trouble or disturbance while they surf the latest riveting posts and make themselves ever more anxious that their dull, messy lives cannot match up to the amazing, beautiful lives of their dear friends on Insta and Facebook.

If you ask many whether what they’re doing is OK, they might show a momentary hesitation – but it’s all so tempting. Little Johnnie hasn’t given any trouble for the last hour. And the last time Mama tried to take the tablet away from him the screaming fit in the middle of the supermarket was just so embarrassing.  So, better to let him carry on. he must be OK.

But, there is a small nagging doubt in the back of Mama’s mind, ever since she read news stories about how high placed people in the Silicon Valley tech companies don’t allow their children to use mobile devices. They ought to know what’s for the best? But, little Johnnie’s so much better behaved like this, and Mama has a headache worrying about the fact that she seems to be the only one of her friends who hasn’t yet Konmari’d her home. She used to invite friends round for coffee, but now it would just be too humiliating.

Today, Mama’s really not sure she has any gratitude for the wise people at the World Health Organisation (WHO) who have carried out an extensive review of the scientific evidence to issue guidance which was published last week. Their recommendations address the appropriate amounts of sleep, exercise and screen time for babies and infants under 5. They had issued guidance for older age ranges earlier dealing particularly with physical activity (5 to 17, 18-64 and 65 and over).

World Health Organisation Guidelines – Diet and Physical Activity

Mama hasn’t forgotten the trouble that happened when it was discovered that her older son’s friend was feasting on copious amounts of screen time at her house, after his parents had specifically told her that they had made a rule to limit him to one hour per day. “Surely, that was cruelty to deny the child something he liked so much,” she rationalised. In her heart she knew her real reason was that she saw no way of introducing and maintaining such a rule for her own child, and she does like to be the popular Aunty! Such a minefield dealing with other kids’ parents!

These new WHO guidelines deal with needs for exercise, sleep and (passive) screen time for three age categories; under 1, one to two and three to four. Their focus regarding screen time seems to have been more on the physical effects of inactivity more than effect on eyes or mental and psychological impacts of excessive screen time. More screen time equals more sedentary time, means major contribution to growing levels of childhood obesity.

CNN – Health – Exercise, Sleep and Screen Time Recommendations For Under 5’s

The information contained here is vitally important for care givers as well as those in a position to educate and guide parents, especially professionals working in early years environments. However, it should also lead many in early years and playgroup situations to assess their own practices as well. It’s important to note the stress placed on free and active play as the primary route for learning for children in this age range. Educators who become hellbent on an academic head start for these children with weighty syllabus and limited play would do well to review the implications of these recommendations. If parents are a long way from the scenario in these guidelines, at least the educators shouldn’t be making things worse!

Finally, here’s an article from The Atlantic that acknowledges some of the challenges in moving towards these guidelines. If anything, this is an acknowledgement that in many environments, especially prosperous Western cities, the children are already a very long way away from what’s being recommended. There’s a long road ahead and time will show the full implications for children growing up with shortages of quality sleep, active physical play and an excess of passive screen time.

The Atlantic – How Should Parents Interpret Screen-Time Recommendations?

Training The Brain

Generally, on at least 20 days in each month, I set a bit of time aside to do the online ‘free’ tests available on the Lumosity website. Most often, this is with my morning coffee when i get up. if not, at some time later in the day when there’s a logical time to pause for breath. Many years ago, the fad was sudoku puzzles and off and on over the years I’ve got in to the crossword habit.

Does all this activity make me more intelligent? Do the memory exercises boost my memory, the task swapping exercises boost my ability to focus? Or, should it just all be treated as a bit of fun? If I’m having fun and it ‘gets me up and going’ in the mornings, does it really matter?

To my mind there are two specific reasons why it should matter to us what these online programmes are actually achieving;

a) They make some pretty big and grandiose boasts (claiming to back them with genuine hard scientific research data) about the benefits,
b) Some varieties of these programmes are being marketed more aggressively towards schools and parents as ways to boost the ‘brain power’ of children – by implication boosting their academic abilities. These are tempting claims, sometimes tied in some way to the ideas of growth mindset propounded by Carol Dweck of Stanford University.

There’s potentially a great deal of money at stake here (not from me, I’m only using the free version!) so it’s inevitable that any new research or authoritative statements in this area are going to have an impact and be hotly contested. So, it was with all these factors in mind that i read the following article published recently in ‘The Atlantic’. It sets out details of a recent review of all the scientific papers identified to date on the subject. The overall conclusions suggest the complexity of measurement in this area and highlight that the companies marketing the programmes have, at least, been guilty of some exaggeration of the direct benefits.

The Atlantic – The Weak Evidence Behind Brain-Training Games

If I believe that by doing such exercises regularly, day after day, my brain will work better, faster, with more creativity, dexterity and deliver me superior results AND as a result of that belief, I get those benefits, then can it be said that the programme itself did or didn’t have the positive effect? If i got the positive effect i wanted, does it matter how it was achieved? Has similar research looked at the issues of weight training or other physical fitness based techniques? If I do bodyweight exercise three times a week, and as a result find that I can carry heavy loads easier and for longer day to day, do i need scientific evidence to conclusively and quantifiably link the two things? Surely, it’s enough that there is no evidence of adverse impact from the bodyweight exercising? In other words, it’s not harming me, I have benefit that may directly or indirectly flow from the exercising – then surely I will consider it’s in my best interest to carry on exercising.

As for me, as long as I feel that these exercises are a fun accompaniment to my early morning coffee I will continue to do them. I am certain as I can be that they’re doing me no harm. If I feel that afterwards, I start my day with a bit of extra mental ‘zip’, energy and feeling like the engine’s properly cranked up, then I’ll not worry too much whether that was the games or the coffee that did it for me.

The Truth About Exercise

An excellent BBC documentary that explodes some of the myths we've all learned about exercise, fitness and managing weight. Well worth watching.

Also, vitally important to ensure that we're giving the right messages and information to children, while they're at the best stage in their lives to create positive habits that they can maintain later.

Exercise for Better Learning

Why deny children regular exercise, when the evidence in favour is so powerful?

I would put particular emphasis here on the word ‘regular’. I get very troubled when i see data or evidence in schools that suggests that the amount of physical activity the children are getting is actually dwindling. Even when they do gt physical exercise, all too often for administrative convenience it’s squeezed in to one weekly session, thereby significantly reducing the benefits.

Here’s a nice, short article that sets out in very simple terms what we know about the benefits of regular physical exrcise. Incidentally, this article isn’t even written to refer to children – it’s just as relevant for us adults!

Fast Company – 3 Reasons Exercise Makes You Smarter

It’s ironic that the volume of curriculum is often given as one of the primary reasons for squeezing out time for recess or PE. As the article highlights, our memories actually work better when we get good regular exercise – which should mean we can learn more in shorter time. Also, in schools there’s a very big factor that isn’t touched upon here. When children are getting good exrcise every day they’re calmer and more focused in the classroom – thereby significantly reducing discipline issues and off-task beaviour.

Not only does this make the classroom a more effective place of learning, but it reduces health risks for the children and makes the classroom a ‘nicer’ more empathic place. It’s really time to rethink the role of the physical body in the school.