No one was surprised when the 2015 annual ParticipAction report card came out this month and the results were abysmal. No eyebrows were raised by the "news" that children in the five to seven age group scored a D-minus for overall activity, or that the vast majority failed to meet the recommendation of at least one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day. Titled "The Biggest Risk is Keeping Them Indoors," the report emphasized the need for parents to "get out of the way and let them play," stating that the amount of outdoor play that children engage in has fallen dramatically in recent years, mostly on account of helicopter parenting.
We know this too well: Our kids are getting fatter and unhappier by the day as we collectively stand by, organizing play dates and Mandarin lessons but not letting them run around the block on their own because they might get stolen by bogeymen who barely exist outside of TV crime dramas. Child abductions by total strangers are extremely rare in Canada.
Also unsurprisingly, the report found that Grade 5 and 6 students who were allowed to explore outside unsupervised got 20 per cent more vigorous activity than those whose parents were present. The closest thing to a revelation was that even toddlers got less exercise when playing on jungle gyms set up to current health and safety codes (rubber-mat flooring, gently sloping slides, swings that are impossible to jump out of) because they perceived the playgrounds to be "boring."
In essence, the report concluded, if we truly cared about our kids' health, we'd send them out into the streets at dusk armed with pocket knives and matches in search of abandoned construction sites. Kidding!
But it does seem that what truly inspires children to get their daily cardio is the prospect of doing something totally unstructured and potentially dangerous. "What many parents recall from their childhoods as thrilling and exciting play is often called 'risky play' these days," the report explains. "These are the active games and independent play that tested boundaries and included things like exploring the woods, rough housing, moving fast or playing at heights. We are not suggesting that children be reckless, but we do recognize that some risk is actually good for kids."
The bad report card came out just as school track and field days were getting started across the land. This is the one day of the year when children participate in strange and tedious contests of physical prowess, such as "who can jump the furthest in a sandbox" and "who can run the fastest across the line."
When I was a kid, parents never attended track days – those competitions were mercifully unwitnessed except by a handful of sweaty, shrieking gym teachers with whistles between their teeth. But my stepson's school "Sports Day" in London is an annual rite. Sports days are particularly revered by the British, who never miss an opportunity to separate the wheat from chaff, the cream from the milk or the wobbly slow coaches from the smug sprinters. Not only do parents show up with picnics, we are forced to compete in races and events of our own. Remember that famous photo of a young Princess Diana beating the other moms at William's first nursery school sports day? One year at Freddy's school, there was even a separate "nanny race" for carers.
In any case, it seems heart-sinkingly fitting that the very same overprotective parenting culture that denies children exercise by keeping them indoors playing "educational games" on the iPad also prizes the annual day devoted to physical competitions. I'm not crapping on all sports here – I know we have future Olympians to train for the glory of nation and Nike – but I also think there are much better reasons for kids to run and jump and tumble than the single-minded goal of achievement.
If we want to understand why our children are becoming physically unfit, neurotic and whiny instead of bounding around like joyous Labradors, we need to look past the superficial anxieties of helicopter parenting to our corrosive culture of achievement.
Last week, an e-mail to summer interns from a bank executive at Barclay's in New York was leaked to the press. His description of what was required to make it on Wall Street – an aspirational culture that prizes competition and material attainment – offers some insights into why middle-class parents find it increasingly difficult to simply let our children play when they could be training and competing.
"We expect you to be the last ones to leave every night, no matter what," the executive writes. "I recommend bringing a pillow to the office. It makes sleeping under your desk a lot more comfortable … the internship really is a nine-week commitment at the desk … Play time is over and it's time to buckle up."
So when your kids head off to their sports days, you might want to reconsider the point of all the competitions. We keep our kids at home because the park is full of bad guys, but maybe the real evil lies in what we actually value. Kids need play and risk, and instead we direct them toward achievement and security. We're terrified they might lose the race, yet we're holding them back from what really matters.