By Gudmundur Hegner Jonsson
Schools across the country are now moving to normal operations in line with new government guidelines, opening up a wider range of options for extracurricular activities and school trips. And while we all need to stay alert and ready for changes related to the pandemic, I want to take this opportunity to celebrate the importance of making kids more physically active.
It is not difficult to understand why children have been less physically active since the emergence of COVID-19. This is a global trend, as study after study in Canada, China, Korea, the United States and beyond over the past two years has shown that young people are spending significantly more time in front of screens and much less time to engage in physical activity.
Yet lack of physical activity among children was a problem in Korea even before the pandemic. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) published research on how much physical exercise children aged 11 to 17 got. With 94% of Korean students not getting enough exercise, the country ranks at the bottom of 146 nations, just behind such low performers as the Philippines, Cambodia and Sudan.
The research is also clear about the consequences when we don’t exercise enough, such as higher risks of obesity and type 2 diabetes. We are seeing the rise of these conditions among young people around the world, including here. In addition to limiting health risks, children need to be physically active in order to develop abdominal muscles, coordination and healthy posture.
I must also point out that the consequences of physical inactivity are not limited to purely physical factors. We know that not being regularly active can affect children’s mood, sleep quality and social interactions. Additionally, pandemic research has concluded that less physical activity and more screen time are associated with higher rates of anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and behavioral problems in children.
One of the hardest things for teachers during the height of pandemic-induced social distancing measures was having to hold lessons ― including physical education ― online and not being able to encourage students to be active. the same way as before COVID-19. Now that we are able to resume all classes on campus, we are all very excited to reopen a new era for outdoor education, which I believe is essential for develop skills and resilience that will accompany children throughout their adult lives.
It’s in the spirit of this new era that I want to make some recommendations for the month of May, which is rather wonderfully considered “Family Month” in Korea. It’s also a great time of year to get outdoors. Sometimes when you’ve lived in one place all your life or for a long time, you can ignore what’s around you. This country has coasts, mountains, rivers and canyons. The possibilities for adventure are endless all year round.
For example, my elementary students took on hiking challenges, like scavenger hunts for natural materials to create art. My high school students also challenged themselves with orienteering in small groups. This combination of being outdoors, physical activity and challenging as a team helps our students physically and emotionally, stimulates their intellectual abilities and develops their leadership skills.
Parents of course have a big role here. Besides organized sports and games, they can take their children to parks or to mountains and rivers. Even a 15 minute walk before or after dinner can make a difference in a child’s fitness and growth. Most neighborhoods have taekwondo schools where children can develop a range of abilities, as well as playgrounds where they can race. The key is to find activities that keep them moving regularly.
If you add it all up, the minimum WHO recommendation for children and adolescents aged 5 to 17 is an average of at least 60 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous physical activity.
There may be days when you just want to be home, especially during the rainy season. On such occasions, students can always be encouraged to develop their hand-eye coordination. Playing with physical toys like building blocks and model trains helps children be creative while accessing and refining their gross and fine motor skills. As they grow, they can move on to more advanced activities like robotics and STEM kits.
Another popular idea in my experience is to give your child arts and crafts and ask them to create something.
Ultimately, physical activity becomes a starting point rather than an end in itself. As children do more, their sense of wonder grows, they become more curious, and they may want to help plan future activities. By allowing them to experience the outcome of their decisions, we help them build resilience. Soon, children begin to lay the foundations of habits for life.
This is why I view the full reopening of schools with such optimism. There is now a very real opportunity to engage students in a wider variety of physical activities, while encouraging families and their children to also explore ways they can move together during this May “Family Month”. and beyond.
Gudmundur Hegner Jonsson is the College Principal of Dulwich College.