Some kids can't wait to sign up for competitive sports: for others, earning that physical education credit is like torture. While there is little doubt about the importance of keeping kids physically active, there is quite a lot of debate around how this should be accomplished.
The British Government recently launched a campaign, in conjunction with their preparation for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, to give every child the chance to participate in five hours of competitive sport every week. Prime Minister Gordon Brown says he wants schools, parents, volunteers, coaches and the sports world to work together in offering the equivalent of an hour of sport to every child every day of the school week. But would a push like this work in the United States, and should it?
No on both counts, says Jay Coakley, PhD, Professor Emeritus at the University of Colorado and author of Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies.
First of all, while many other developed nations such as the United Kingdom and China are facing the same health problems—diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure due to inactivity—they have centralized sports authorities working with the government to boost physical fitness. In the United States, Coakley says, the focus on local control of education is so strong that any government input is treated as lip service. “We emphasize individualism, rather than the collective that smacks of socialism,” Coakley says. “In the process we have an unbelievably fragmented approach to education and sport.”
The current set-up for extra-curricular sports activities in this country is failing kids, according to Coakley: parents spend exorbitant amounts to enroll their children in elite, private clubs for gymnastics, ice skating and other activities. “Programs that used to bring people across the community together are now privatized based on social class, race and skills,” he says. One of the biggest problems this creates, according to Coakley, is that it leaves a large number of kids whose parents can't afford ski club embittered on the sidelines of a corrupt political system. “No one wants to play intramurals because it's considered second class,” he says.
But, even for affluent kids these programs, focused solely on specialized skill development and measurable indicators of progress, may not encourage a healthy relationship with physical fitness, according to Coakley. In fact, studies indicate that specialization may be harmful to a child's development. Coakley provides this analogy: “If your child came home from school one day and said, 'I learned all about apples today in school and from now on, all I'm going to eat are apples.' You'd probably say, 'Apples are good, but we also have to add other things to your diet.' We have to make sure there are other physical activities on our child's plate.”
But, despite these problems, Coakley says more government control is not the answer. “Anything that comes from up top will have an organizational structure that's constraining,” he says. “We have to give kids the opportunity to be autonomous, and maybe we can sneak in the skills and the fitness parts.”
Instead, he says the trend towards healthier physical fitness programs will have to be delivered through grass-roots campaigns, by developing community-based programs that are open to everyone and contain elements of informal games, and other forms of play.
Coakley says a big piece of this puzzle is rethinking the way we look at physical fitness in our children; it's not just about those competitive team sports, it's about experiencing a wide range of movement activities—be it skateboarding, tumbling, or even interactive video games like Wii. In fact, this is how Coakley says the future of sport will be: a combination of technology and movement. “I think we're going to see kids in virtual spaces, putting on head gear that gives them 360 degree view of an environment that they'll negotiate physically,” he says. “We need to think creatively: What do we want in terms of human movement for our children?”
How can you negotiate this new concept of movement into your child's life? Coakley says parents who have children enrolled in the more rigid programs should let their children retire if they want, and instead focus on having a blast with a range of physical activities. “Let them engage in spontaneous play and give them opportunities to experiment with the relationship between their bodies,” he says. For kids less than enthusiastic about physical fitness, he says parents should talk about their other interests and “find out how those things overlap with movement, and how to hook kids up.”
American children need to be more physically active, and their communities are in a unique position to provide them with programs that instill the values of fitness through positive experience. And, those are the kinds that last a lifetime.