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The importance of an active childhood

Little boy playing on playground
Credit: iStock.com/LeManna

For adults, exercise usually means a trip to the gym, a power walk, lifting weights or going for a run.  But physical activity for a child is a completely different concept; netball or soccer games, playing “tag” with friends, riding bikes and generally running around with their friends or siblings. 

We all know how important exercise is for a child’s overall health but there are several factors that influence the healthy behaviour of children – particularly in a home environment.

Dr Katherine Downing from the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), Deakin University, says parents have a unique opportunity to shape their children’s behaviours at home.

“One of the best things parents can do is set up healthy habits in the home, and a large part of this is ensuring that children have plenty of opportunity for physical activity, limited screen time, and access to healthy food choices,” Dr Downing says.

“Early childhood – which includes children from birth to five years – is being increasingly recognised as a key time that children establish healthy behaviours.”

Avoid using screen time as a reward

There are a number of “traps” that parents might fall into, such as using screen time as a reward. Dr Downing says using screen time as a reward, pacifier or babysitter is an easy habit to fall into, because screens are so engrained in our lives.

“Some of the things parents can do to avoid this are to set clear screen-time rules – on what programs, apps and games your child can use, on when your child can have screen time, like no screens in the car or only one show after kinder, and on the amount of time they’re allowed, or even having set ‘screen free days’ each week,” Dr Downing says.

“It’s also important for parents to limit their own screen time; modelling is a really big influence so it’s important that parents and carers lead by example. Another thing to remember is that it’s okay for children to be bored! This is when they have to use their imagination to generate and participate in their own play. So, instead of reaching for a screen next time they say they’re bored, let their imagination do the work instead.”

Another thing to remember is that it’s okay for children to be bored! This is when they have to use their imagination to generate and participate in their own play. So, instead of reaching for a screen next time they say they’re bored, let their imagination do the work instead.
Dr Katherine Downing

Children learn best through play and exploration

Some parents fear that their children might be “left behind” when they start school if they haven’t been exposed to screens from a young age. But, Dr Downing says that, given how intuitive technology is becoming, there’s no reason why children who haven’t been exposed to screens before school won’t learn the technology very quickly.

“We also don’t know what technology will look like in the future – it’s changing and evolving so quickly that anything children learn in the early years may have changed by the time they start school. And particularly at this age, children learn best through play and exploration.”

“It’s also easy to fall into the habit of always having the TV on in the background or on during mealtimes. But there’s evidence to suggest that background TV reduces children’s attention spans during playtime and lowers the quality of parent-child interactions. We also know that eating snacks or meals while watching TV is associated with children consuming more sweet drinks and junk foods, and fewer fruits and vegetables.” 

Develop healthy habits early

Dr Downing says it’s crucial that young children have plenty of physical activity when they are young. Evidence shows that developing movement skills at a young age has positive impacts on physical activity, fitness, body composition, self-confidence and behaviour in later childhood and adolescence.

“This is important for their fundamental movement skills – things like hopping, skipping, throwing a ball – which we know are the cornerstones for future physical activity and sport participation. Physical activity in early childhood also has important direct benefits for brain development, emotional health, heart health, fitness and bone health. We also know that there are a number of positive health outcomes related to physical activity in later childhood, adolescence and adulthood, and given that physical habits established early in life are often maintained into later life – setting up good habits early will certainly have positive benefits when they are older.”

In terms of meeting Australian government guidelines, Dr Downing is confident the majority of toddlers and preschoolers do achieve the recommended three hours of activity at any intensity per day.

“But, from the age of five years, children should be aiming for at least one hour per day of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity – and the adherence to this guideline drops to around 50 per cent. So the more physical activity kids aged five and under can get the better. As we know, physical activity habits established early in life are often maintained into later life,” Dr Downing says.

“It’s also important to note that less than 20 per cent of toddlers and preschoolers meet the screen time guideline of no more than one hour per day. This is particularly worrying given the range health and developmental outcomes associated with high levels of screen time, such as increased risk of becoming overweight, and poor motor development, brain health, and emotional health and wellbeing. And any time spent on screens can take away time and opportunities for other activities, including reading, quiet play, and physical activity, which have numerous health and developmental benefits.”

Dr Downing’s tips:

  • Make activity a part of everyday (for example, walking or riding bikes to the local shops or park, incorporating indoor or outdoor play into every day).
  • Limit screen time (particularly for very young children).
  • Role model enjoyment of healthy behaviours, and co-participate in these (for example, being active and eating healthy meals together).
  • Set up the home environment to support healthy decisions (for example, reducing the availability and accessibility of unhealthy food in the home, removing screens from bedrooms).
  • Avoid “unhealthy” rewards for good behaviour (for example, avoid offering dessert or screen time as a reward, instead offer a story or game with a loved one).