International evidence suggests that children have poorer movement abilities due to COVID-related blockages that have reduced physical activity in school, socially and in the community. In parts of Australia, home learning has replaced face-to-face classroom teaching for months.
Thousands of primary school children in Victoria and New South Wales are now returning to full-time on-site learning. They are likely to catch up after missing fundamental health and physical education (HPE) experiences.
What impacts have the confinements had?
In the Netherlands, pupils aged 4 to 12 are said to have significantly reduced their movement skills after the lockdown. The study found that the biggest differences before and after the lockdown were in younger children.
The Dutch lockdown (98 days plus 49 days with some access to physical education and organized sport) is comparable to the NSW lockdown (107 days in Sydney), but shorter than in Victoria (77 days in the sixth lockdown) from Melbourne, 262 days in total).
Physical educators have struggled to provide appropriate support to students during lockdowns across the world. Studies in the Czech Republic, Portugal and Spain, among many countries, have reported similar negative effects on children’s development and health.
A Tasmanian-based study found that HPE simply did not perform while in distance education or was reduced to a break in movement between other subjects considered more important.
The study concludes that online delivery reduced the subject’s educational focus – the â€œEâ€ in HPE did not occur. Instead, the focus was on physical activity tasks.
This effect on physical education has been found in Tasmania despite only limited periods of COVID-19 restrictions and no full statewide lockdown. The impact will likely be much greater in New South Wales and Victoria.
In preparation for our ongoing research, two teachers at a Melbourne elementary school told us they were concerned about their students’ reduced physical activity during periods of lockdown. Grace, who teaches 4/5 years in the north of the city, said: â€œWe have noticed a massive lack of physical activity among the students. Some say they went to the park or played basketball in the area. yard, but many are talking about being on their devices. We have certainly noticed over the past year that students have gained weight. “
Frances, a one-year teacher in West Melbourne, said: â€œThe focus has been on the socio-emotional well-being of the students, which is extremely important. However, a decrease in physical activity certainly has an impact on well-being. “
Why is missing out on HPE important?
In the Australian curriculum, health and physical education are designed to provide the foundation for lifelong physical activity. Through HPE, students develop their motor skills by participating in a range of structured physical activities, which in turn improve their safety and well-being.
The deadlocks over the past two years have meant that much of the national HPE time allocation of 80 hours per year has been lost. Monitoring student activity against these guidelines is not mandatory and is rarely done in schools.
Elementary students in particular missed out on many hours per week of physical activity and the essential early educational experiences it offers.
Grace said: “Our sports teacher usually assesses using anecdotal notes, but who knows what assessments she has done this year because of all the interruptions?”
Children miss more than HPE courses
For children aged 5 to 17, the Australian Physical Activity Guidelines recommend several hours of light activity per day. This should include at least 60 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous activity.
The Australian Institute for Health and Welfare (AIHW) reports that just 26% of children aged 5 to 12 and 10% of 13 to 17 years old were on guidelines before the pandemic. However, due to differences in survey questions, definitions of “sufficient physical activity”, data collection methods, and time frames, it is difficult to determine guideline compliance in these age groups.
Data from the AusPlay National Tracking Survey shows that children’s participation in extracurricular sports organized at least once a week has declined nationwide, from 55% in 2019 to 43% in 2020 after the pandemic. Both indoor time and screen time have increased, according to AIHW data.
Walking to school, carrying a satchel, playing during breaks, and HPE classes also help kids meet physical activity guidelines. The confinements have reduced all these activities to nothing.
In contrast, informal games in parks (where accessible) and streets have increased during closures.
Failure to participate in HPE increases the risk for children of not meeting physical activity guidelines. Children most at risk are those with lower pre-pandemic developmental capacities and those living in disadvantaged socio-economic areas who have fewer opportunities for organized physical activity.
Adherence to physical activity guidelines is a key factor in promoting the overall health of the population. Physical inactivity increases the risk of developing chronic diseases. This is generally more of a problem in areas with a low socio-economic profile.
Where from here?
In a context where fundamental HPE â€œjust didn’t happenâ€ for many months, we are urging schools to consider its role in a crowded curriculum. HPE is vital to student well-being and public health priorities.
Regular motor skills monitoring in schools is important to respond to changing circumstances, such as long periods of limited or no access to HPE and community sports.
Physical educators will need support to reintroduce their students to physical education and help them make up for what they have missed. They will need to take into account the diverse range of physical activity experiences children bring to HPE Elementary. Long lockdowns risk increasing disparities between children.
Additional support will be needed from schools and governments. This is especially important for preschool children and other priority populations.
In the years to come, better equipping educators with remote HPE delivery and digital technologies will be critical to dealing with similar situations across Australia. This provides the opportunity to explore new cultures of movement within the framework of HPE.
Australian children are among the least active in the world. We have developed an inexpensive school program that works
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