Canadian Kids Do Not Have the Skills Needed to be Physically Active At All…Not Just in Sports

Basketball Team conducts free basketball clinic at USAG Brussels - FMWRC - US Army - 100820

Travis’ Note: Two weeks ago Dr Meghann Lloyd wrote a guest post on the importance of motor skills in the promotion of physical activity.  The post generated a tremendous amount of discussion, so I asked Meghann to do a follow-up post, and we have also done an accompanying podcast.  The podcast is embedded below (email subscribers can hear it by visiting the blog itself, or by subscribing to the podcast in iTunes), and I’m looking forward to more discussion in the comments.  More details on Meghann and her work can be found at the bottom of this post.

I have to say that I was overwhelmed by the response to my previous post and Travis has asked me to follow up on this topic considering the discussion it has generated. Please see the accompanying podcast for a more in-depth conversation. I hope this follow-up brings some clarity and more discussion to the topic.

The goal of my previous post was to draw attention to the idea that, although there will always be external barriers to physical activity engagement (e.g. cost, space, time, accessibility), motor skills can also be an important barrier worthy of our attention.

It’s not just about sports

The first overarching theme of the comments on my last post was the general distaste for “sports”. I may have been remiss in highlighting a couple of clearly “sport” examples (e.g. cricket) in the context of how skill level impacts on physical activity. The truth is that all physical activity requires some level of skill be it using a wheelchair, riding a bike, swimming, and even walking. Travis pointed out in a couple of his responses that children are usually taught “how” to ride a bike, or “how” to swim; and these examples are clearly not team sports. However, the principle still applies; those who don’t know how to ride a bike don’t ride bikes, and the same goes for swimming – if you don’t know how to swim you generally don’t go swimming – you avoid it if you don’t have the necessary skills.

An example from my research experience comes from a study we conducted in my former lab at the University of Michigan.  We taught adolescents with Down syndrome how to ride a bike (parents report that less than 10% of children and youth with DS can ride bikes); and measured physical activity to see if there was an effect of learning that one skill on activity levels. This paper is in press in Physical Therapy [Travis’ Note: I’ll link to the post as soon as it’s available], but the findings indicated that even one year after learning how to ride a bike, the children who had learned how to ride were significantly more physically active and less sedentary than those who didn’t learn how to ride.  This research suggests that learning even a single skill can have an important impact on overall physical activity levels.

A positive role for Phys Ed

A second theme that emerged from the discussion posts was the role of Physical and Health Education – specifically how some people have had very negative physical and health education experiences in the past.   It is very unfortunate that these type of experiences exist, and the truth is stories such as the ones shared are not uncommon. In fact, the Tragically Hip (a very popular Canadian band), wrote about the “eternal flexed arm hang” from the Canada Fitness awards in one of their songs called Fireworks (around the 2 minute mark) on their album called Phantom Power in 1998.

“Isn’t it amazing you can do anything

Next to your comrades in the national fitness program

Caught in some eternal flexed-arm hang

Droppin’ to the mat in a fit of laughter

Showed no patience, tolerance or restraint”

Needless to say, the Canada Fitness Award program has been discontinued for several years and physical and health educators work tirelessly everyday to not repeat the mistakes of the past.

The reason I think Physical Education is a venue to increase motor skills is because approximately 95% of children attend school on a daily basis. It is a venue where we can reach the most children regardless of their socio-economic background and other external barriers to physical activity. Let’s compare it to reading: we give children tools, concepts, content and skills for reading. We teach them in class, and give them books to read at home for homework and hope that they develop their reading skills to a point that they love to read and engage in reading for pleasure for their life. Why should Physical Education be any different? The role of the teacher is to give the children the skills, tools, knowledge and understanding that allow and encourage that child to engage in physical activity outside of school.

When you examine the different physical and health education curricula across Canada, it is amazing how much content teachers are asked to cover, and how much time has been put into creating these extensive programs. One of the problems is that most elementary teachers in Canada do not have the training necessary to properly deliver these curricula. It is rare that physical education specialists (i.e. people trained and skilled in the delivery of this material) are present in the elementary schools. I wholeheartedly agree that physical education classes could be better implemented, but I also firmly believe that PE represents an ideal opportunity to improve motor skills and thereby promote physical activity and recreation opportunities outside of school.

I think the best thing to come of Travis inviting me to participate in Obesity Panacea is the discussion it has generated. I hope that this follow-up post and the attached podcast help clarify the ideas that I was trying to communicate. Thank you again for the opportunity.

Dr Meghann Lloyd is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. Her work has focused on the interaction between motor development and physical activity in children with and without disabilities.

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7 Responses to Canadian Kids Do Not Have the Skills Needed to be Physically Active At All…Not Just in Sports

  1. Pingback: Canadian Kids Do Not Have the Skills Needed to be Physically Active | Obesity Panacea

  2. MK says:

    About time! In the 70’s I was raised by my grandmother who know nothing about sports. In gym class the teacher expected that we know the rules for baseball (I did not) or how to throw a ball or hit it. What a miserable experience! Lucky for me I was given swimming lessons since that was considered a safety issue but otherwise I struggled.

  3. Marc Morris says:

    I think it should also be noted, interestingly, from a pure energy balance standpoint the more efficient we are at a given movement the less calories we will burn doing it.

    • Travis says:

      Very interesting point, Marc. From a pure energy balance perspective yes. But as people become more proficient and a movement becomes more efficient, it also tends to become more enjoyable (from my personal experience at least). So I may burn far less calories running now than I did as a kid, but I also run far more, so the total calories burned is now much higher. Ditto for cycling. In contrast, I’m not very efficient at basketball-related skills, so I just avoid them, regardless of the fact that I could theoretically burn more calories than a more efficient player.

      The article at the link is interesting, and I can see those tactics working for a very specific segment of the population (e.g. the Tim Ferris crowd), but I don’t know that it’s something that will ever be enjoyable or adopted by the mainstream population.

  4. Cynthia says:

    Hi – I appreciate the attempt to clarify the idea of teaching children specific skills in order to allow them to be more active … I truly can’t argue that phys ed is bad, that sports are bad or that teaching children specific sports skills is bad but this approach can only be one small part of a more holistic solution. I understand that a kid who picks up a new skill and enjoys it is likely to do more of that skill… the operative phrase there being “enjoys it”. Teaching sports specific skills should only be one learning objective in a much larger learning plan that is about teaching a desire/ability to be active/healthy/fit for one’s entire life.
    I note that you say we teach reading at school and hope that we’re creating readers but I think it is well known that children who love reading and willingly & regularly do it on their own & continue to do it as adults are the ones who had/have parents who read and love to read. So, maybe active children have active parents?? Not saying the schools shouldn’t try, but as with most things regarding children – home & what happens there is the heart of the matter.

  5. Pingback: Borgess Athletic Performance Program » Skill Development increases Physical Activity — and not just for athletes!