Time for play

Here is a troubling paradox: Most parents love their kids even as they undermine their health and shorten their lives. Harsh? Certainly. But sometimes the truth hurts.

Here is a troubling paradox: Most parents love their kids even as they undermine their health and shorten their lives.

Harsh? Certainly. But sometimes the truth hurts.

And that seems to be what’s happening in Canada, according to a new report card on our children’s physical activity.

The nation got an F. Which means we’re slowly killing our kids by enabling sedentary habits.

How pervasive is the problem?

Well, if you gather 100 children from one of Whitehorse’s elementary schools in the gym, only 14 of them will be getting the barest minimum of their daily recommended physical exercise. The other 86 aren’t getting nearly enough.

And Yukon kids are more active than everywhere else in the country except BC and the NWT, where 15 kids out of every 100 are getting the minimum amount of exercise.

No province or territory is achieving the recommended physical activity guideline of 16,500 steps per day.

There are plenty of excuses for parents to use, chief among them is that they are busy.

In most families, the parents (or parent) work a full day. And, at the end of the paid workday, there are dinners to make, cleaning to do – all the stuff you have to do to run a household.

All of that is easier if Lila or Jeremy aren’t underfoot.

And these days there are plenty of distractions that can keep those kids occupied and happy (read quiet) – DVDs, Xboxes, portable computer games, desktop computers, TVs, books, CDs, board games, blocks … the list goes on and on and on. Look around … the average home has 3.8 TVs, 2.8 DVD or VHS players, a digital video recorder, two computers, 2.3 video game players and a few books.

When they’re not watching the screen, they are doing about an hour or so of homework at a desk. They are probably reading – maybe a novel or a textbook. Or both.

Hey, the kids are occupied and you know where they are and they are safe.

But, ironically, they are probably less healthy than they would be simply playing outside.

However, sending your kids out isn’t as easy as it once was.

Into this weekly work mix, you have swimming lessons and soccer a couple of times a week. Double that if you have more than one child.

This has replaced the free time that kids once enjoyed.

Parents have deluded themselves into believing it is enough physical activity.

It isn’t.

Children should be playing more amongst themselves, outside structured events, according to the report by Active Healthy Kids Canada, a national charity devoted to championing healthy living for kids.

Children don’t run wild in the streets and parks, ride their bikes, play ball hockey and Frisbee and British bulldog and hide-and-go seek very often, if at all. Unsupervised play – which has been shown to build stamina, social skills and imagination –

should probably make up half the child’s daily exercise, but, these days it is rare.

Instead, kids are more likely to be ferried to organized sporting events a couple of times a week. That couple of hours of organized physical activity, while better than nothing, isn’t enough to counter the hours of sitting. Only 28 per cent of the children questioned had rules limiting their time before a monitor or TV screen.

Today, 90 per cent of children start watching TV before they are two years old. Four of the 10 bestselling education apps in iTunes are geared towards children under four years old – in 1970, the average age kids started watching the tube was four.

Today, the average child starts watching a screen at five months.

Less than half the children under five years old are getting enough physical activity. And 15 per cent of Canadian children two to five years old are overweight.

But, the parents are busy and distracted. Society keeps them that way. And the children are often in daycares, which, in many cases, have lots of kids and the barest minimum of staff. When it came to early childhood education and care, Canada actually ranked last out of 25 nations studied by UNICEF, which cited the lack of substantial public investment in children younger than five years old.

Some research suggests that 89 per cent of time spent in a daycare is sedentary, though, of course, that depends on the facility.

Fact is, there is rarely free play when your kids are in such care.

And, if they aren’t learning the benefits of an active lifestyle when they’re young, they are unlikely to learn it at all.

Compounding the problem is the fact that busy families don’t do physical activities together very often. Though most adults think otherwise.

According to the report card, 60 per cent of parents said the family engaged in a weekly physical activity, but only 25 per cent of the children corroborated the claim.

Of course, while parents are failing to keep their kids away from the monitors, handheld screens and books, they aren’t the only problem.

Most municipalities studied by the organization have bylaws that actively prohibit youth activities. Whitehorse’s anti-skateboard bylaw would certainly fall into this category, though other towns have gone further, outlawing mountain biking in certain places and, in some cases, ball hockey.

No province or territory is putting measures in place in their schools to meeting the Canadian physical activity guidelines of 90 minutes of physical activity a day.

Ottawa has cut back funding for activities that foster physical activity. As a result, it was awarded its first F for its efforts. Today, the federal government spends half what it did promoting a physical activity in 1986.

So, federal, provincial and municipal governments all share in the blame.

But it begins with parents, who aren’t doing enough to encourage their children to be active.

Shut down the screens, take a break from soccer and send the little ‘uns outside to play.

At first they’ll grouse and moan, but kids have a knack of sussing out fun on their own eventually – especially if you tell ‘em you don’t want to see them again until 8:30 p.m. (The old, “Stay out until the streetlights come on,” doesn’t work well up here.)

And then do your yard work – after all, you could probably use a little exercise yourself.