Educating and inspiring children to get moving is not about fitness today but a healthy lifestyle tomorrow, says Dr Mike Loosemore…
The majority of young children are naturally active as they discover the world and their own mobility – we seem to do more to get them to sit down than encourage them to run around. We worry about instilling behavioural skills such as courtesy, sociability and eating habits, but less so about getting children moving.
But why should we ignore it? Children spend over six hours a day on screens. One in 10 are joining primary schools overweight, worsening to one in four at secondary schools. As children grow up, many lose their appetite for sport or any kind of physical competition. We know that childhood obesity leads to a greater chance of individuals developing cardiometabolic risk factors, being socially isolated, being a victim or perpetrator of bullying, and remaining obese as an adult.
I’ve long been aware of the dangers of sedentary behaviour amongst adults. Every day, new evidence adds to the realisation that lack of physical activity is not the only health risk. Hours sat immobile in a car, at a desk or in front of the television are causing our bodies untold harm. But changing adult behaviours is complicated and can take a long time. So why wait till the problem is ingrained?
I realised that if we could educate and inspire children from an early age about the benefits of non-sedentary behaviour and low-level activity, it could become as much a part of daily routine as washing hands before eating and saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.
This led, in 2014, to the development of Active Movement for young children, a programme designed to enthuse and involve all children, to be empathetic to different age groups’ mobility and understanding, and to engage parents and educators as role models to guide children’s participation.
How it works
Active Movement uses characters developed to act as both guides and clear descriptors of the focal point of the programme: Stan (who stands) and Sid (who sits), with their phonetically matched pets (Max the dog and Tiggy the cat respectively). All are introduced to children via stimulus material that intensifies over a 12-month period, particularly for the three- to five-year-olds. Posters of the key characters, with messages about standing and sitting, enable children to become familiar with their look and their intentions. A range of books, comics, nursery rhymes, role-playing games and even everyday language empower staff to integrate non-sedentary behaviour and low-level activity into daily routines.
As the affinity with the programme increases, so the interaction and relationship between the characters is enhanced. The characters read out nursery rhymes for the children to learn and enact; stories are narrated to bring all of them to life; dolls are supplied for a greater tactile experience.
In the final phase, the ultimate connection is created when the characters come to visit. The opportunity for children to meet, question and play with them reinforces the belief in the characters and what they represent. Moreover, such threedimensional exposure has the effect of deeply embedding this behavioural norm in the memory.
It is vital to the effectiveness of the programme that those around the children act as mentors and role models. This means engaging with staff and parents as much as we can. In the case of staff, we tailor our business Active Movement programme to inspire them to follow a non-sedentary lifestyle whilst at the same time empowering them to support the children. Parents are also encouraged to participate through continued communication with our team as well as inviting their involvement in homework for the children around standing at home.
In order to obtain an objective assessment of the Active Movement programme, we recruited Juliet Porter, an early years academic and training consultant associated with a university in East Anglia. She utilised the ‘Mosaic Approach’ with the children of the Old School House Day Nursery in Newmarket, Suffolk. Data for this is sourced in a variety of ways, including through observations, discussions, photographs and examples of children’s work.
The environment was divided into areas for sitting, standing or both. Stan and Sid posters were placed around the nursery, which the children toured, discussing health benefits and messages. Photographs were taken by staff of nursery activity areas and spread on a carpet for children to place stickers indicating areas for sitting and standing. Throughout the evaluation, staff made weekly observations of individual children across all age groups.
The results were extraordinary. The characters Stan and Sid were recognisable from all ages, even preverbal. Affinity with them grew quickly (“I like Stan”) as well as understanding the message around non-sedentary behaviour (“I am standing and Stan is best”).
Children were engaged with the communication, showing their parents the posters – even encouraging them to stand up together at home. As an additional community by-product, we created a special programme between a local senior citizen’s residential home and the children to share regular walks together. Most important was evidence of children’s self-determining behaviour changes. One child regularly chose to stand when he could normally sit. When seats were not provided at tabletop activities, children were more accepting and did not even request chairs.
Children found the programme so enjoyable, they began to introduce their own ideas such as Stan’s Gingerbread Men, Stan’s birthday dance party and role play, and writing Christmas cards to Sid and Stan.
The long-term health problems of a population increasing in age, obesity and non-communicable disease on our health services have been well-documented. At the same time, government measures to combat these problems have been expensive, often expedient and rarely successful. The evidence is clear that reducing sedentary lifestyles can have a huge impact on diabetes, heart disease, cholesterol levels, blood pressure and mental health. If we are to offer our children as healthy a future as we can, we have to create a means of activity that is accessible to all, achievable by everyone and as integral a part of everyday life as brushing your teeth.
Though in its early stages, we believe Active Movement may be the way.
Four ways to to tackle sedentary behaviour in your setting…
1. Look at daily routines. If you’ve two sedentary activities in a row, re-schedule to reduce lengthy sitting.
2. Remove tables and chairs to familiarise children with a non-sedentary lifestyle. Art, for example, can be completed standing up.
3. Create communication, for example, simple posters around the nursery as a reminder to all.
4. Changing non-sedentary behaviour is difficult, so try one non-sedentary activity regularly. Stand up after 20 minutes sitting. That’s all it takes for your body to start shutting down!
Find out more about how Active Movement could help your staff and children develop healthy lifestyles.