Imaginations running wild play a part in children’s health, but as JANET HOWIE reports, many children are not keeping up with national activity guidelines.
A PIRATE ship, a place to watch dinosaurs, a home to magical folk.
It may be just a backyard tree to others, but to Kieran, Caitlin and Sheridan Jones it is so much more.
For these Wodonga siblings, aged 12, 10 and 8 respectively, the vegetation they have grown up with remains a constant source of imagination, playing a key role in their outdoor games.
A homemade ladder — introduced mainly to protect underlying plants — helps them climb those first steps, but then they are off among the branches, which can quickly change into whatever they need.
And woe betide if their parents Damien and Dianne ever think to remove or even prune this playground.
“Every time Damien says ‘I want to get rid of that tree’, it’s like ‘No, no way, we are NOT getting rid of the tree!’,” Mrs Gibbs-Jones laughs.
The tree, trampoline, swing set, sandpit and basketball ring in the Jones’ backyard all help encourage the children to be active in the fresh air and supplement the family’s more formal sporting pursuits.
Mrs Gibbs-Jones, a physical education and science teacher, says this focus on the outdoors did not spring up by chance.
“Growing up that was our only option; Mum always kicked us outside,” she says.
“That was how we grew up so we’re trying to give that same sort of experience to our children.
“Screen time is good, but so is reading a book, so is being outside, so is going for a ride on your bike; it’s not the main thing, it’s got to be part of a balanced approach, I think.”
Unfortunately, many children’s lives may indeed be out of balance, with the busy-ness of modern life, reduced incidental exercise, risk-averse parents and the attraction of mobile devices all combining to keep youngsters indoors.
National guidelines, which can be found on the Department of Health website, recommend toddlers and preschool children should be physically active for at least three hours throughout each day.
Those aged between five and 17 should do at least 60 minutes of daily moderate to vigorous physical activity and on three or more days they should aim for activities that strengthen muscle and bone.
"It’s just all part of interacting as a family and doing things that we enjoy that they enjoy as well.”
And as for those screens, the recommendations range from no time in front of them (for children younger than two years) to less than one hour (two to five years) to no more than two hours as entertainment (up to 17 years).
So how are the kids doing?
The inaugural Active Healthy Kids Australia report card on physical activity for children, released in May, found 80 per cent of five to 17 year-olds are not meeting the guidelines.
Among the 12 grades assigned in the card, Australia recorded D or below for overall physical activity, active transportation and sedentary behaviours and a B minus for organised sport and physical activity participation.
Report author Natasha Schranz says too many Australian parents believe playing sport is enough to keep their children healthy.
“Australia is a sporting nation, and vast numbers of children are involved in some type of organised sport but this report clearly shows we need to be looking at further ways to keep kids active when they are not on the sports field,” Dr Schranz says.
Not only can parents encourage an active life, they provide influential role models through their own behaviour and willingness to join in.
Mrs Gibbs-Jones says sometimes their backyard becomes a pitch for their cricket matches.
“Of course, Mum and Dad don’t get to bat all that often,” she admits ruefully.
“We tend to get to field a lot, but that’s OK, it’s just all part of interacting as a family and doing things that we enjoy that they enjoy as well.”
Albury physical therapist Wayne Haynes, of Border Health Profile, says fun needs to form part of any children’s activity.
“The health benefits aren’t what kids look for,” he says.
“It’s the engagement, the socialisation, the feeling good inside and wanting to explore.
“They don’t want to know about the fact that ‘I’m going to run around the block and it’s going to improve my beep test or my skin folds’, they just want to engage and explore.”
Dr Haynes took part in a long-term research project, whose full results will soon be released, that assessed the effects of Bluearth, an activity program that many Border and North East schools have introduced into their curriculum.
“The kids who don’t play sport outside of school need to be engaged in another way,” he says.
“They’re the ones most at risk of the health issues and the lack of physical activity issues, but they’re the ones least catered for in the models that we (traditionally) use.
“All that creates is a comparison between the kids who are really fit, the young girls who are unfit, the young boys who are obese and the kids who’ve got social issues and kids who’ve got cultural issues.
“If you’ve failed dismally, you’re not going to engage and do it again.
“But if you have confidence about your competence, even if it’s a low level, because you’re engaged with others in a sharing experience, you’re more likely to get them (perhaps) not playing sport, but going for a walk, being engaged in other activities which are incidental for your health and wellness.”
Wahgunyah Primary School started doing Bluearth this year, with an instructor visiting each fortnight to lead the classes and the teachers providing follow-up in between those sessions.
Principal Brendan Hogan says the program combines physical education and social development for the pupils and also allows staff to build more skills and confidence in teaching this area.
“I think one of the key things it teaches the kids is being aware of their own feelings and self-control,” he says.
“Some of that stuff carries across into the classroom.”
Mr Hogan says despite a full curriculum, the school makes physical activity a priority, with short morning fitness sessions and outdoor play encouraged. And teachers certainly do notice the difference on rainy days when the children are confined indoors.
“Kennel crazy isn’t the right term, but they’re itching to run around and release this pent-up energy,” he says.
At Corowa Preschool there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing, and connecting with the outdoors is valued.
Director Shelley Chandler says play that might contain some risk, such as climbing, can help children learn about consequences.
“There are lots of benefits to be gained from resilient children who can take risk safely,” she says.
Mrs Chandler says involving children in tasks is one way to combine exercise, fresh air and jobs that need doing.
“So much can be gained from asking, as opposed to telling, for their help to clean drains, rake leaves, move dirt etc, if delivered well,” she says.
“Adults need to engage children and work with them and value contributions.”
Albury-Wodonga GymbaROO director/instructor Helen Milbourne has worked with hundreds of families in 28 years of leading the early learning and movement program.
She agrees parents today can be tempted to try to remove every risk to their children, which can therefore impact on activity levels.
“There’s a lot of having to educate my child now about all the dangers out there, not only about stranger danger but just whether my child is safe to climb a tree,” she says.
“It takes a pretty brave parent to send a child on their own to school walking along a street.”
Ms Milbourne feels parents need to educate themselves in order to assist their children.
“You have to start thinking and doing and watching and putting yourself in the area of a child and look at your own values,” she says.
“If you want them looking for spiders etc, we have to learn about spiders, we have to learn what’s safe to do around a spider’s web.”
Dr Haynes says the consequences of over-protective parents can be significant.
“If you put a child in cotton wool for the whole of their life, all of a sudden you give them car keys at 17 years of age?” he queries.
“You’re better off falling off the bike at 12 than falling off the car at 17 because you don’t know what risk means.”
Ms Milbourne says children who have been sick and inactive return to GymbaROO bursting with excessive energy on their recovery.
“That’s just nature surfacing to say, ‘I need movement now’, so what’s happening to the very healthy child when they’re asked to ‘Sit in front of the TV while I put my make-up on because we’re going out’ or just be inside a lot because it’s too muddy outside or it’s wet or it’s cold?” she says.
Although many indoor pursuits can be worthwhile and active in themselves, Ms Milbourne says all of us, not just children, require more.
“We as human beings need to go and see wider horizons, our eyes need to take in far longer distances to then relate to who we are in this space,” she says.
For Mrs Gibbs-Jones, the bottom line is all the benefits that come from children being active.
“Academically, socially, emotionally, it’s all linked in together,” she says. “So if you can get them outside running around, get a bit of fresh air and a bit of exercise into the daily routine, weekly routine, monthly routine, it’s just so much the better for everything else that they do.”