Young people today enjoy more leisure options than ever before. In previous generations, many kids had limited access, both financial and physical, to commercial leisure options, not to mention a greater number of responsibilities around the home. Free time used to consist of largely ad-hoc (improvised) leisure options wherein kids were not only the participants, but also the constructors, exercising both their bodies and minds in the process. In our modern age of high technology, commercialization and mass production, these traditional patterns have undergone a dramatic shift towards leisure that is largely passive and sedentary in mode, and commercially consumed by youngsters who have access to a good deal more free time and money than their forebears. None of this is new of course. In fact, you’ve probably heard it all before.
By now, parents should be well aware of the alarmingly sedentary lifestyles many modern children live. The long term health effects of such patterns is also widely recognized amongst parents, especially the direct links with childhood obesity, cardiovascular disease and a plethora of other preventable conditions. It is also common knowledge that regular physical activity is crucial for healthy bones, cardiovascular strength, weight control, mental health and lowered risk factors across the board. So, while children are more sedentary than at any time in our history, parents are also more informed and educated on the subject than ever before. The question has to be asked: why are so many parents struggling to get their kids of the couch?
For many, the simple answer is that they know what they should be doing, but have few clues as to how they should go about it. Indeed, amid the torrent of compelling medical and social statistics, practical considerations for combating youth inactivity often take a backseat. The good news is, keeping your kids from becoming a statistic is not as difficult as you might think.
Know Your Enemy
As in war, getting to know your enemy is crucial for formulating effective strategies to combat it. In this case, inactivity is your enemy, so go ahead and devour as much material as you can on the subject. Youth inactivity is currently one of the most widely researched and publicized fields of study. The popular press, the internet and your local library are all crammed-full of material relating to sedentary lifestyles, childhood obesity and much more. When you truly understand the problem, you will have a much better chance of doing something about it.
Get to Know Your Child
Most parents like to think they know their children, but do you really? What excites your child? What sports do they like? What games do they play with their friends? Who are their role models in the media? Do they prefer the beach, the mountain or the forest? Do they like riding a bike or are horses more interesting? Do they enjoy swimming or would they rather go for a run?
Often, getting to know a young person reveals avenues that can be explored. For example, if your child likes Basketball, rather than letting them sit in front of the television watching the game, why not ask them if they would like to set up a hoop, or join a team? Even if they don’t take up such offers, you are showing an interest in their life, keeping the door open for other efforts at getting them up and active.
Do it Together
One of the best ways to get kids involved in physical activity is to do it with them. Don’t just sit there and supervise your kids, or let them run free, get out there with them and play. Parental involvement is both supportive and comforting, and especially effective in helping children overcome potential barriers to their activity such as shyness and anxiety. Don’t forget that family outings such as picnics, camping and shopping provide many excellent opportunities to be physically active.
Give Children a Sense of Ownership
It is not enough to simply encourage children to be active or provide them with opportunities for physical activity. To be most effective, your approach should ensure that the child is not just a participant, but actually has some form of involvement in constructing the experience. When a child has a sense of ownership or membership, they are much more likely to stick with it, and often derive more enjoyment and satisfaction. All of a sudden, they are not simply a participant, but also a contributor.
To return to the Basketball example, don’t just set up a basketball hoop and let the kids go for it. A better approach would be to get them involved in the process by letting them pick the style of the backboard, getting them to paint it in colors they like, allowing them to have a say in where it gets put, letting them help in mounting it, allowing them to mark the driveway with chalk so it looks like a court - the ideas are endless. All of these things, while relatively minor, can actually enhance children’s motivation levels a great deal and also hold their interest in the activity for longer periods of time.
Set an Example
Parents are often reminded that they must set an example for their children. Certainly, as parents, you are the most influential role-model for your kids, and conscious or not, your behaviors and attitudes will have an effect upon theirs. This is equally true in regards to physical activity, keenly evidenced in the fact that a large number of obese parents end up raising obese children. The implication is, if you are truly committed to keeping your kids active, you too must make a commitment to activity. If you don’t practice what you preach kids will be presented with a contradictory message that may confuse them.
Try, Try and Try again
Don’t give up just because your first attempt at getting the kids active has failed. It doesn’t mean your child can’t become more active, but rather, that you need to be trying a different approach. However, persistence doesn’t mean that you should be badgering children until they comply. Such practices are likely only to encourage resistance and invite more failure.
Often, finding the right mix of activities to get your child sufficiently active, and keep them that way, is largely a matter of trial and error. Allow them to taste a variety of different experiences, and expect a certain degree of opposition and disappointment along the way. Always encourage, but never push.
Sport is not Necessarily the Answer
When trying to get their children to be more active, many well-meaning parents will opt for sports right out of the gate. Often, they will aim to get their kids involved in the same sports they are involved in, or were involved in during their own youth. It as this point that it must be remembered that children are not extensions of their parents, but unique individuals, each with a different mixture of interests, opinions and motivations. That said, many children enjoy following in their parents sporting footprints, which is typically the result of socialization processes rather than their own free will.
A parent should never fall into the trap of assuming that getting children into organized sport is the best way to get results. If a child is not interested in sports, or a particular sport, and is not initiated in a progressive and supportive manner, outcomes are likely to be negative and could potentially build or reinforce a predisposition against physical activity. Sports can be a certainly be a great option for getting kids more active, but they are not for everyone.
Sedentary lifestyles are endangering not only the health, but the very lives of our kids. As a parent it falls upon you to take some responsibility for your children’s lifestyle habits. Fortunately, there is a vast resource of information out there for concerned adults, but it all means nothing if you will not take the time, and make the effort, to be proactive in promoting and facilitating physical activity. Remember, you cannot simply talk the talk, but must also walk the walk. You are the very best chance your children have of developing and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Arron Stewart Is 26 years old, lives in Hamilton, New Zealand, and attends the University of Waikato as a graduate student in Sport & Leisure with an additional focus on Sociology and Human Resource Management. A website has been established featuring more information and selected articles of his work: http://www.geoci/arron_stew_79