Time for a better start

Modern living has not been good for many of our children but communities can turn it around, writes Professor Tom Cochrane of the University of Canberra.

Recent research from the University of Canberra, involving measurements of almost 22,000 ACT primary school children who participated in the SmartStart for Kids programme, showed that 69% of children had low general fitness and a quarter were either overweight or obese. On a more positive note, closer inspection of that same data showed that the majority of overweight children could achieve normal weight with just an extra 15 minutes of physical activity a day and dietary intake restriction equivalent to around two squares of chocolate per day. In addition, general fitness levels could be improved through a wide range of physical activities such as those that might be gained through active play and active travel to or from school.

These data are backed up by the findings from the Canberra-based Lifestyle of our Kids study that examined the influence of specialist PE in 853 Canberra school children from when they were eight until 12 years of age. This study showed that, overall, 31% of boys and just 16% of girls met the national guideline of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day.

Alongside these declines in physical abilities and increases in excess body weight, children’s social skills (evidenced by, for example, the Buddy Bench campaign in ACT primary schools) and psychological resilience (evidenced by the increasing number of children and young people who have a mental health treatment plan) have also been noticeably in decline.

Challenge to parents and communities

These findings throw down a challenge to us as a society to do better for our children. In essence, this means that we need to reconfigure our environments and lifestyles for children such that there are adequate opportunities for all children to be physically active daily, to interact socially more often and with fewer opportunities to consume excess calories.

What can parents and carers do?

Increasingly, the demands of the workforce on parents and carers have made the challenge of providing active and social opportunities for children more challenging. A greater proportion of children’s time is spent in sedentary, often solitary, activities, usually in front of a TV screen, mobile device or a games terminal. The natural consequences of this change in lifestyle are: loss of social and psychological skills; decline in general fitness; and gradual increase in excess body weight. Parents and carers should become more engaged with these challenges, advocate for and, where feasible, support change for a better future for our children.

How to get involved in shaping change

The University of Canberra’s Health Research Institute in collaboration with the Urban Synergies Group is holding a forum on March 8 - Shaping Spaces for Gen-Z - which will focus on how as communities we can create environments that foster healthy childhood development in the broadest sense of this term, including mental and physical abilities, social and psychological skills, connectedness to community and maintaining a healthy body weight.

Specific objectives of the forum are:

  • to bring together a wide range of key stakeholders
  • to discuss potential future approaches and the balance of opportunities available to children and to empower children and families in shaping change
  • to test new approaches to decision making on issues that affect the whole community
  • to identify and agree tangible actions that may achieve healthier environments for kids.

It is free for P&C members to attend but please register for catering and attendance numbers purposes.

This article appeared in ParentACTion, Term 1, 2017.