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Step outside

Nurturing

READYMADE MONKEY BARS  Scrambling around outdoors is crucial for kids’ physical and emotional development.

Health

Andrew O'Brien

I read a piece in The Irish Times recently that discussed the level of physical ability of Irish school children. Reporting on the findings of studies carried out at DCU and UCC, the article stated that less than 50 percent of 12 to 13 year olds can throw or hit a ball and only 11 percent can skip. A similar study of preschool children found that only 2 percent could catch a ball. And while the figures are worrying, they are not that surprising. They do point to why the western world has a growing problem with childhood obesity. Kids just aren’t active.
I found it interesting that the researchers tended to predominantly blame technology, whereas when I shared the story on social media, some people lamented the fact that you can’t leave children outdoors as much these days because it’s deemed unsafe. The technology element is hard to refute; more people – adults and children – spend far more time indoors in front of screens than ever before. The safety argument is one that sadly is easy to fall back on, but in my opinion, isn’t actually true.
In his book ‘Last Child in the Woods’, Richard Louv discusses the various reasons that children in the US spend very little time in the natural environment. One reason given by various groups is the safety element; both from the perspective of actual physical danger, such as falls and injury, and from perceived dangers, such as potential abduction.
Louv argues, I believe correctly, that the actual physical risks are no different now than they were in the past. Kids fell out of trees and off bikes then, just the same as they would now. Yes, sometimes they will try to do something that is too difficult and hurt themselves, but if children don’t learn what risks to take in a physical environment, research suggests that their emotional development will be affected as well.
As to the perceived risk of things like kidnapping, terrifying as they may be, statistics indicate that the risk of abduction is no different now to any time before. The same statistics also indicate that, despite all the warnings of ‘stranger danger’, a child is far more likely to be taken by a family member than a stranger.
Louv argues that we should teach our children to be wary but confident, not lock them up inside away from a danger that doesn’t truly exist. In many ways, the advent of the 24-hour news cycle and social media have increased these unfounded fears – perhaps another reason to turn the screens off.
Is there a simple answer to getting our children more active and able? It’s a bit of a yes and no answer.
Yes, in that the easiest way to get kids more active is to make them, well, more active. The difficult part is getting everyone on board. The Irish Times article quoted school principals and PE teachers who have set up programmes, and while they are to be commended for doing so, parents need to take a bigger responsibility as well.
The idea of just going outside and doing ‘stuff’ with kids is something that appeals to me. Throwing rocks in the river, climbing around headlands at the beach, climbing trees. I love seeing parents doing those kind of things; rediscovering the joy of playful exercise away from the gym and setting a good example to their kids.
This discussion reminds me of a story a friend told me many years ago. His girlfriend at the time had just moved towns and needed somewhere to live. Having checked the ads in the local newspaper she went to view a house where two guys in their mid 20s had a spare room. The meeting went well, she liked the room and the lads seemed to think she’d be a good housemate.
At the end of their meeting the lads had one final request. She was taken out to the back yard, handed a tennis ball and asked to throw it at the wheelie bin at the other end of the garden. When she looked at them and asked why, the answer was simple: “We spend most evenings playing cricket out here, and if you can’t join in, we can’t let you move in.”
The message? Teach your kids to run, jump, throw and climb. It will keep them healthy, and just might put a roof over their heads.

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