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Six year old Maia Svenneby, who loves riding her bike and swimming in the lake, climbs one of her favourite trees in Kew Gardens in Toronto. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Six year old Maia Svenneby, who loves riding her bike and swimming in the lake, climbs one of her favourite trees in Kew Gardens in Toronto. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

School's out - why aren't your kids out playing? Add to ...

It took Allison Wong a few tries before her love affair with sport took hold. The 10-year-old tried basketball, soccer, baseball and golf. Badminton clicked in Grade 2; she's been playing ever since.

"I don't call it badminton, I call it good-minton," Allison says cheerfully over the phone from Vancouver. "Because I learned how to control how hard I hit the birdie. It's so fun!"

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Amid the barrage of bad news about rising childhood obesity across North America - about one in 11 Canadian children is obese - it's worth pausing to ask: How can we get more kids moving like Allison?

Now that school's out, kids have a perfect chance to renew and recalibrate, whether it's hours at the park with friends and a soccer ball or enrolling in a sport camp. Experts suggest we prioritize summer activity the same way we prioritize eating summer produce.

"Summers are long days," says Vinh Truong, general manager of the Langara Family YMCA in Vancouver. "It keeps [kids]away from the TV. They get to experiment."

A report in June from the Canadian Institute for Health Information found that by the time we reach adulthood, physical inactivity has the strongest association with obesity. With North American kids spending six or seven hours a day in front of (non-school) screens, how to get them moving is a question that researchers, fitness advocacy groups such as the renewed ParticipACTION, and parents are scrambling to answer.

Encouraging kids to try a variety of activities is one good idea: It wards off boredom and kids develop a range of physical skills. Starting young also appears to "set" a penchant for exercise. And parents are the ultimate role models, especially when they focus on fun, not rivalry.

A recent Active Healthy Kids Canada report found a shocking 9 per cent of boys and 4 per cent of girls spend only one hour a day on the "moderate-to-vigorous" physical activity benchmark set by the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (examples include walking quickly, skating, bike riding and skateboarding).

"It was pretty discouraging to see that we scored an 'F' in that report," Mr. Truong says. His Y's new Action Kids after-school program addressed the issue with a range of sports and games aimed at getting kids their daily hour. And his summer camps include daily exertion.

Still, it's hard to assess how much dodgeball or tennis is enough. By other measures, including much of the research by Statistics Canada, children are considered active if they do a sport or exercise one or more times a week, says Leanne Findlay, who studies children's activity at StatsCan.

But some patterns emerge from the numbers: If a child is very likely to participate in "unorganized physical activities" at 4, they are very likely to still be participating at 17. Having active parents appears to cement that habit.

"I'm a father of three boys and it's monkey see, monkey do. If I'm on the couch, they're on the couch," says Mr. Truong. "I know you work all day and you're tired, but you've got to get out there."

Allison's mother, Theresa Wong, says she and her husband are sporty and try to inspire their two daughters. Allison played on her school's badminton team and at Vancouver Y Action Kids. She's also been playing baseball. As the summer unfolds, she'll be volleying birdies with her sister on their lawn any chance she gets.

"It's a lifestyle. It's not a choice," Ms. Wong says. "In the summer, it changes from more organized sports to camping and free play."

Like Allison, six-year-old Maia Svenneby started young and has active parents. The Toronto girl enjoys biking, gymnastics and tree-climbing. And she's already been for a swim in Lake Ontario. "It was cold, but I still liked it," says Maia. "I can jump over the waves and go for walks in it."

While her love of trees hones strength, balance and coordination, it may also have more cerebral benefits, such as resistance to the "nature-deficit disorder" coined by nature advocate Richard Louv.

Maia's mom, Kari, runs a network of outdoor play groups at ActiveKidsClub.com, so it's not surprising Maia's imagination is wired this way. "When we go up in trees it's like we're in a clubhouse," Maia says. "You can stand without falling. And sometimes people find some eggs."

Owen Cumming of Toronto has a similarly gleeful attitude. As the school year wound down, the almost-11-year-old was itching for summer. "I get pretty jumpy waiting," he says.

His break is all about swimming and water sports including sailing and kayaking - some at the cottage and some at camp. The learning curve has been swift, he says, so while he will spend some time on technique, it's mostly fun.

A squash camp he just attended included outdoor training so kids wouldn't miss out on sunshine. "It's really good for your health, but it's also really fun being with your friends doing stuff."

Even in the realm of organized sports, experts are trying to lighten up and focus more on the magic of motion.

John Hyland, head coach at the North Toronto Soccer Club, runs a number of outdoor camps and is trying to move away from non-stop competition and toward more broad physical literacy.

"House league drives me nuts," says Mr. Hyland, a recent transplant from Britain. "It's 'Throw them on the field; parents will scream, shout from the sidelines, score! score! score!' … The competitive thing is driven from the youngest ages, and there's no ability to play the sport and enjoy it for longer."

The new thinking is inspired by Victoria-based sport consultant Istvan Balyi (Malcom Gladwell popularized his assertion that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in a sport) and an initiative of his called "long-term athlete development."

LTAD guidelines aim to foster a love of being active as well as creating better building blocks for careers as elite athletes, all with less injury and burnout.

The idea came to him while working with the Canadian Alpine Ski team. He asked Olympic and world champions to do simple gymnastics - front and back rolls. They were either terrible or completely unable to do them, he says. "So imagine, all these Olympians lacking fundamental movement skills."

Just as educators use age-appropriate teaching tools, parents and coaches should be versed in the movements right for each stage of childhood. "We are imposing adult programs on developing athletes," he says. "We don't consider developmentally appropriate programs."

A number of sports organizations and government bodies are adopting his plan.

Mr. Balyi advises children to switch up their activities seasonally to cover land, water and snow.

While the grown-ups worry about such things, children like Maia rely on the simple logic of childhood to explain what works for them. Just ask her about the merits of a summer spent outside: "Inside, you can't really bike," she says.

SLOTH BY THE NUMBERS

- 9 per cent of boys and 4 per cent of girls meet the new Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines of 60 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity.

- 44 per cent of kids get that 3 days a week; 78 per cent get 30 minutes three times a week.

- Sport participation rates in Canadians aged 15-18 fell from 77 per cent in 1992 to 59 per cent in 2005.

- Kids in European countries take almost 2,400 more steps per day than Canadian kids.

- Only 37 per cent of parents regularly engage in physical activity with their kids; 64 per centtake their children somewhere to be active.

- 71 per cent of kids aged 6-9, 83 per cent of those 10-13, and 76 per cent of 14-17-year-olds play sports at least once a week.

- 25 per cent of children get 3-4 phys-ed classes a week. Only 2 per cent of girls and 3 per cent of boys spend at least half the class in moderate to vigorous physical activity.

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Sources: Statistics Canada, the Canada Health Measures Survey, Public Health Agency of Canada, Canadian Institute for Health Information, American Academy of Pediatrics, Active Healthy Kids Canada, ParticipACTION.

 

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