School Sports Week: Raising active kids

School Sports Week: Raising active kids

This year, we are encouraging children and young people to get their 60 minutes a day of physical activity.

Along with teachers around the country, this School Sports Week, we are encouraging children and young people to get their 60 minutes a day of physical activity. An hour may sound a lot but compared to the average nine hours a day 11-to-14-year-olds spend on phones, an hour is achievable! Physical activity isn’t just sport, it’s also play. According to our Head of Learning and Impact, Dr John Allan, ‘play in the outdoors is more important that sport. It’s integral to building the components required for sport, such as fitness, agility, and speed’.

What does exercise mean for kids?

When we talk about kids' exercise, we’re not talking about the 10K runs, full body gym sessions, or evening pilates classes that we might take on as adults; for kids, exercise means something different. It’s about active play and adventure, activities that strengthens their growing bones and muscles, lowers their chance of getting health problems later on in life, and wards off obesity - and those are just some of the physical benefits.

As well as a vast array of active play and adventure opportunities at Skern Lodge, exercise and physical activity for kids could look like anything from cross country running to climbing, playing on playground equipment, and gymnastics.

Why is exercise important for kids?

In 2019, the World Health Organisation said that ‘active adolescents are likely to be active adults’, with the opposite also being true - sedentary children go on to being sedentary adults. With both short and long term benefits of physical activity that positively impacts a child’s development as well as their health later on in life, the groundwork for a positive and proactive attitude to exercise should begin early.

What are the physical benefits of exercise for kids?

Weight bearing activities, such as running, jumping, gymnastics and climbing, all use muscle force to strengthen bones over time. In fact, we build the vast majority of our bone density in both our childhood and our teenage years, so a good, strong foundation helps breakages occur less easily, and if and when they do, helps them to heal quickly.

Childhood obesity is widely considered to be one of the biggest public health concerns that we face in modern Britain. According to the UK Government’s National Child Measurement Programme, 9.2% of reception age children, and 22.7% of year 6 children, were found to be obese in 2022/23. Whilst this is lower than in 2021/22, it’s still higher than pre-pandemic levels.

Good cardiovascular fitness means a healthy heart and circulatory system. Whilst this is also partly achieved through diet, some good, heart-pumping physical activity is essential to it too - this could be running, riding a bike, swimming, or hiking.

It encourages better sleep. A child’s healthy development depends on good quality sleep; it’s when their brain and body do so much of their growing. There is lots of evidence to suggest that there is a positive correlation between children’s physical activity and the quality of their sleep - and after all that running around, they’ll need the shuteye too!

What are the mental benefits of exercise for kids?

Improved cognitive function. Kids are sponges - they can soak up so much! This capacity is only increased by the right amount of exercise, as exercise has been found to boost the production of cells in the hippocampus. This is the part of the brain that controls learning, and memory, helping them make sense of the world and retaining the information they need. With increased blood flow comes better focus, too - good news for teachers and parents alike.

Public Health England have reported that ‘Children and young people who are aerobically fit have higher academic scores. The intensity and duration of exercise are both linked to improved academic performance, including GCSE results at age 15 and notably girls results in science.’

It can lower levels of anxiety, stress and depression. In a study conducted by the University of Edinburgh, ‘Engaging in regular moderate to vigorous physical activity at age 11 was associated with better mental health between the ages of 11 and 13. Physical activity was also associated with reduced hyperactivity and behavioural problems, such as loss of temper, fighting with other children, lying, and stealing, in young people’.

Exercise and physical activity are well known to release ‘feel-good’ chemicals, or endorphins, in our brains. In addition to this, they have a positive impact on dopamine and serotonin, which can improve  depression and anxiety. This, alongside the sense of achievement that physical activity, sports and exercise can provide, help lift children’s moods, and can keep anxious thoughts at bay. It’s also a good opportunity to blow off steam, helping to channel any feelings of anger and frustration.

Why is exercise and physical activity important for child development?

Not only does cultivating a healthy attitude towards exercise and physical activity set kids up with the tools they need to keep their bodies in check throughout their lives, but it also has a bearing on their development during crucial developmental stages. For example, motor skills, social skills, resilience and confidence are all improved by a child being able to discover their own physical abilities, and working together with peers as a team in the fresh air or within the parameters of a sport.  

Why might we be struggling to get kids to exercise?

Anyone with any direct contact with a child in their life will know how strong their wills can be, so getting kids out and enjoying exercise and physical activity isn’t always the easiest of tasks. However, the uptick in obesity figures in recent years is a nod to just how many kids aren’t getting the physical activity and exercise that they need. Whilst it’s impossible to pin this struggle onto any one thing, there are a number of factors thought to be contributors to this worrying social development:

   • Increased screen time

Gone are the days when the only entertainment was that which you could make yourself - I.e. outside in the fresh air. The likes of bikes, skipping ropes and hopscotch have been somewhat largely replaced by phones, tablets, TVs and games consoles, leading to whole swathes of time spent sedentary.

  • Academic performance

With a lot of pressure on kids to put their school time to good use and get the grades they need to excel in life, exercise and physical activity can fall by the wayside in many cases.

  • Poor self esteem

Shy and introverted children with low confidence may find it harder to put themselves out there, particularly as exercise and physical activity are often social or competitive pursuits, particularly in childhood. Looking back at the positive impact of exercise and physical activity on self esteem that we mentioned earlier, this quickly becomes a vicious circle.

How did COVID affect how much kids exercise?

Of course, there’s another big, recent contributing factor in the struggles kids and parents may have in making exercise and physical activity a regular occurrence - the COVID-19 pandemic. Child obesity levels have risen to noticeably more than they were before the pandemic, which was a time in which leaving the house was actively discouraged. Sport England reported that ‘during the academic year 2020-21, there were 94,000 fewer active children and young people compared to the year before the pandemic (2018-19)’.

With the way children were educated, entertained and socialised having to exist largely online during those two years (a long and crucial time for children of all ages), it’s no wonder we’re seeing a knock on effect in so many aspects of child development, not least health and fitness levels.

How much exercise does a child need?

It’s important that parents, carers, guardians and education staff familiarise themselves with how much exercise and physical activity a child needs throughout their development, as it varies depending on their age. Overdoing it can lead to injury and an unhealthy relationship with exercise, and under-doing it can mean that children miss out on the benefits that we’ve mentioned.

For children under five

The UK Government’s Department of Health and Social Care recommends at least 180 minutes (that’s 3 hours) of physical activity per day - this can of course be spread out across the day, not done all at once! This could take the form of walking, swimming, climbing, jumping, skipping, throwing and catching, playing, scooting, bike riding, object play, dance, messy play, or playing on playground equipment.

It’s also recommended that any inactivity be ‘broken up’, so that children aren’t spending extended periods of time watching tv, playing video games, or sitting in a pushchair or car seat.

Children and young people up to 18 years of age

It’s recommended that children and young adults between 5 and 18 years of age should partake in ‘vigorous’ activity for at least 60 minutes per day - up to several hours is okay, too. These should be moderate to high intensity activities that get the heart pumping, as well as those that strengthen muscle and bone. These could include running, bike riding, running, playing sports, gymnastics, skipping and swinging on playground equipment. Remaining sedentary for long periods of time is to be discouraged.

What are the benefits of getting kids to be active outside specifically?

A complete break from the pressures of learning or the routine of home is recommended. Whilst physical activity can of course take place indoors, there’s nothing like completely getting away from the everyday by stepping outside and seeing the open sky above you. There’s a lot going on in kids' lives, both at school, at home, and in their social circles, so exercise and physical activity is a positive, healthy reason to get outside and take a break from it all.

Group exercise and physical activity such as sports can often be participated in best when they happen outside, helping kids learn important social skills, the value of teamwork, and making new friends along the way.  

It’s been suggested that being outside reduces cortisol, a stress hormone, in children’s brains. This in turn reduces stress and anxiety, making for better focus in their lessons, and a happier childhood in general.  

Getting outdoors encourages an appreciation for the natural world. It’s up to us to look after our environment, to ensure that our much-loved and very important outdoor spaces are still there for us to enjoy in the future. By getting out and about in it through exercise and physical activity, children will gain an appreciation and respect for the natural world around them.

Ways to encourage a healthy attitude towards exercise in kids

The way kids approach exercise and physical activity is largely down to their caregivers, but knowing how to tackle such an important part of their childhood and development can be a little daunting to say the least. Below are some suggestions for cultivating a positive attitude towards exercise in your child.

Lead by example

By observing their parents partaking in an active lifestyle, kids are more likely to follow in their footsteps; they’ll see exercise and physical activity as part and parcel of life. On the flip side, seeing a parent being largely sedentary will also lead a child to believe that they can do the same.

Whether modelling an active lifestyle looks like long walks with the dog, bike rides down the beach, attending exercise classes, or regularly running, demonstrating making physical activity a part of the every day can rub off on children. If you can, make your kids a part of it, from bringing them along on walks, to dancing around the kitchen!

Avoid too much competition

Whilst a bit of healthy competition can spur kids on to do their best and therefore do more physical activity, it’s wise to make sure that competitive sports are not the only exercise they’re open to. Seeing exercise simply as a way to win will make it disheartening when the losses come, and distract from the way in which physical activity can be a way to stay healthy and have fun.

Take the time to discover the activities your children enjoy

In many cases, the kind of physical activity a child enjoys will be pretty clear - they’ll try to emulate their favourite footballers, spend hours on their bike, or dance until they’re exhausted. However, for others, they may need a little help finding the kind of movement that they love. For example, they might enjoy yoga, or climbing, or horse riding, but may never have had the opportunity to try. That’s why Skern Lodge works so well - they allow kids to access skills and interests that may not have otherwise been discovered.

Remember, this isn't about the sports, exercise or physical activity that you as a parent enjoy, but what your children feel naturally drawn towards.

Discover more about Skern Lodge adventures, here