Move more – sit less
Researchers who have studied time use and physical activity in early childhood have been concerned about the amount of physical activity among children under primary school age for a long time now. The digitalisation of society over the last two decades is reflected in the way in which children spend their time. According to the annual Children’s Media Barometer survey, the use of media starts as early as during infancy, and children begin to form their media preferences at the age of three or four. Gaming and internet use start at the age of five or six. One survey suggests that, on average, 70 % of three-year-olds watched television or used a computer for an hour a day.
Studies of physical activity among children under school age come up with very different results, depending on the method used to assess physical activity. According to parents’ estimates, almost 80% of children get an amount of physical activity in keeping with recommendations. However, when participants keep time-use diaries, the figure plunges to 40 %. When measured using acceleration sensors, not a single three-year-old achieves the minimum of two hours of physical activity.
In other words, adults’ impression that young children get enough exercise is no longer accurate. As a result, early childhood education and care professionals should be aware of the fact that adults tend to overestimate the level of physical activity both for themselves and with regard to children.
First steps towards a physically active lifestyle taken as early as at the age of 3–5
International studies indicate that an individual’s typical behaviour and lifestyle start to take shape between the ages of three and five.
According to Finnish studies conducted on children under the primary school starting age of seven, one of the most common forms of physical activity among children is playing outdoors. Playing outdoors is more energetic and physically exerting than playing indoors, while it also involves using a wider range of motor skills.
Although Finnish children take up leisure interests from an early age, not all three-year-olds get enough exercise to guarantee normal growth and development. The total amount of children’s physical activity increases between the ages of three and six. At the same time, however, differences between individuals start to grow. As children get older, differences in activity levels also increase between the genders. The least active six-year-olds only get a third of the amount of physical exercise that their most active peers get.
Finnish children are signed up for guided physical activities at an early age. A quarter of all three-year-olds participate in leisure interests once a week, while the proportion of those participating 2–3 times a week is still as high as 12 %. From the gender equality viewpoint, the fact that boys are taken to sports and exercise facilities more often than girls is cause for grave concern. This requires special attention from adults in order to guarantee children’s equal opportunities to participate in physical activity.
Professionals play a key role in increasing physical activity
In Finland, a considerable proportion of children spend weekdays in ECEC (early childhood education and care) centre provided outside the home. This is why it is not unimportant what takes place in childhood education and care. Observational studies indicate that more than half of the hours before noon consist of physically passive activities; 56 % of the time is spent sitting or standing. The amount of brisk physical activity of at least moderate intensity only accounts for 10 % of a day spent in ECEC centre. It is somewhat surprising that up to 76 % of even guided ECEC activities are of very light intensity. Children’s spontaneous play involves more exertion than guided games.
Adults should encourage activity
The intensity of physical activity has been found to be higher in all ECEC centre situations when an adult encourages children to be active. Nevertheless, 90 % of observations made in ECEC centre settings did not involve any motivation from staff whatsoever to increase children’s level of activity. Girls, in particular, should be encouraged to engage in physically active forms of play. All children need motivation during the winter months, when activity drops to the lowest level.
Transition to school is a significant step
Starting school is an important stage in a child’s life. It is also reflected in the amount of physical activity. Total activity stagnates and will gradually start to decline at the age of seven or eight. The amount of physical activity appears to be determined by the structure of the school day: first-grade pupils, for example, play outside and exercise more during weekends than weekdays. Since research has shown that the lifestyles relating to physical activity begin to take shape as early as at the age of three, interventions during early childhood are the best possible way to prevent an excessively stationary, inactive lifestyle.
Text and picture: Joy in Motion programme