For a few moments all the small children in the class are astronauts, bending their knees to strap up their moonboots, pressing the buttons under their jet packs and then pushing upwards with their legs, arms reaching for the sky, to blast off into space.
It's the sort of imaginary, active and fun play that they love. But little do these pre-schoolers at Grian na nÓg in Rathcoole, Co Dublin, know that they are learning how to perfect the vertical jump.
It is one of four fundamental movement skills (FMS) targeted in a new programme called Kids Active that has been designed to get the under-fives moving more.
To parents who are exhausted from constantly running after their three-year-old children, this might sound like a joke. And certainly, left to their own devices, most under-fives would be constantly on the move during their waking hours. But the constraints of modern lifestyles don’t allow for that.
Small children are sucked into a sedentary world of car seats, buggies, indoor living, screens and “crowd control” childcare. With safety, time-saving and convenience at a premium, their opportunities for running around, never mind exploratory, risk-taking, free play in the outdoors, are being snuffed out.
The result is not only the well-flagged obesity crisis, of which lack of activity is one factor, but it also means children are failing to develop basic physical skills that are the blocks on which to build a lifetime of fitness and sport.
Some 27.5 per cent of under-fives in Ireland are classed as overweight or obese, according to a report presented to the European Congress on Obesity in Prague in May 2015. That was the highest rate among the 28 European countries studied.
National health guidelines here advise a minimum of 60 minutes of daily physical activity for children aged two to 18 years. But in some other countries, including the UK, there is a specific recommendation for children aged under five of 180 minutes of physical activity, ranging from light to vigorous.
Early Childhood Ireland, the
Irish Heart Foundation
and the School of Health and Human Performance at
Dublin City University
(DCU) have combined their particular expertise to create the Kids Active programme. It has been piloted in 30 pre-schools and will be rolled out to another 440 by the summer, thanks to €100,000 from
Healthy Communities Fund.
Key staff in each participating pre-school service receives four hours of training to deliver the programme, with the aid of a pack of simple materials. The focus is to increase opportunities for active play as well as to teach children to improve their physical skills.
"We wanted to assist educators in early years services to assist children to be more active, to have more fun and to be more active more often," says Teresa Heeney, chief executive of Early Childhood Ireland. They asked their DCU collaborators which fundamental movement skills (FMS) should be prioritised in the pilot programme and the answer was running, catching, overhand throw, as well as the vertical jump.
“Once you get these right, it really enables children’s ongoing participation in sport and fitness and games throughout their life,” she says.
The targets of the programme, Heeney adds, are modest enough – to increase by 1 per cent per annum the proportion of children who are participating in 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity a day and to decrease by 0.5 per cent per year the proportion of children who have no physical activity.
A study evaluating the programme has just been published and it reports that all who took part decreased their sedentary times and improved their performance of the four fundamental movement skills targeted.
Researchers from DCU, led by Dr Sarahjane Belton, lecturer in physical education, tested the activity levels and prowess in fundamental movement skills of 161 children aged three to five in a number of pre-schools before and after the six-week pilot programme. One half received the Kids Active programme and the other half continued their curriculum as normal.
Those who participated achieved an extra 3½ minutes of light to moderate activity daily within the three-hour period monitored, which was more than double that of the control group. Of the four fundamental movement skills tested, the overhand throw was found to show the most significant improvement with those who received the programme increasing their mastery level from 39.3 per cent to 45.8 per cent over the six weeks.
It's small, consistent changes that make the difference in creating healthier lifestyles, says Laura Hickey, children and young people's manager with the Irish Heart Foundation. Heart attack and stroke may seem remote from children's lives but "early intervention is crucial" for their future health.
“We are seeing young and younger children affected by heart disease – children as young as 10,” she says. One in four children is overweight or obese and only 19 per cent of primary-school children are meeting the target of at least 60 minutes’ physical activity a day.
“We felt that as a society we needed to encourage children to be active every day,” she continues. “Research shows that the earlier we promote a healthy lifestyle among children, the greater the chances of them developing healthy life-long habits and avoiding heart disease and stroke.”
Hickey stresses the benefit of the Kids Active training for the early childhood educators, in giving them ideas for increasing movement among pre-schoolers.
“The really important thing is that the educators had the confidence then to go off and do more physical activities with children, whereas before they were a little bit nervous,” says Hickey of the programme evaluation findings.
“Active breaks make such a difference when you combine them throughout the day, mixing up the different type of activities, from moderate to vigorous, muscle strength and bone strength.”
Derval Mac Carthy who opened Grian na nÓg on a three-quarter-acre site with her sister Ciara 16 years ago, is "passionate about the outdoors". Indeed the creche is built on land where they used to play as children and which they remember as fields with cows and horses.
Operating from 7.30am to 6.30pm, Grian na nÓg takes children aged from 10 months to 12 years for after-school care. As one of the centres chosen to pilot the Kids Active programme, three staff attended the training and then brought back the material to share with the others.
“What was nice about the Kids Active programme was that firstly the materials were so simple,” says MacCarthy. “You didn’t have to go out and buy a whole load of stuff. It was about bringing children back to using things in a very simple way.”
The programme breaks down activities, to support the child who needs the extra help to know how to run, climb, throw and catch a ball. As with adults, some children have a natural fluidity for exercise, she points out. While “you want to be able to open the doors and for all the children to run out and naturally achieve this”, there is always one or two who will hold back, maybe they’re more interested in arts and crafts and music.
How did the programme change what they were doing? “It just made things a little bit more specific,” says MacCarthy. “One thing I would be very conscious of is teaching a child how to catch a ball.”
That is one of the four fundamental movement skills that is broken down into steps here on illustrated posters and cards, which, she explains, is very helpful if working with a child with additional needs or a disability. Even if children can do it already, it improves their technique.
There are prompt sheets telling educators what to look out for at this stage of development in the child. For example, for the astronaut’s vertical jump, which pre-school tutor Joanne McCrudden says is a favourite with the children, they’re told the child’s feet may leave the ground or land at different times, so they should be advised to keep their feet together. Or their initial crouch may not be low enough, which is why they’re told to “touch their moonboots”.
She gets the children to touch the wall at the top of their jump, so they can then mark with their name the height reached and see if they can improve on that over subsequent weeks. McCrudden also thinks it’s good that different characters illustrate each movement skill on the posters. While it’s the astronaut who jumps, for the overhand throw it is a witch with her magic wand.
MacCarthy agrees with the NHS advice in the UK of 180 minutes' daily activity for the under-fives. And she is very glad that the pre-school regulations here have been changed so that centres can no longer open without an approved outdoor play area.
All the children attending Grian na nÓg have their own pair of wellies and parents are advised to send them in wearing clothes that they don’t mind getting dirty. And there is no question of sending in a note asking that a child be kept indoors.
“We have an outdoor policy here where we say that if your child is not well enough to be outdoors playing, then they are not well enough to be here.”
Physical activity is not just about fitness and burning calories of course, but also emotional wellbeing and cognitive development.
Having trained in child psychotherapy, MacCarthy points out that it is said “a child should get the sense of their own body before they can relate to the world. That comes through activity. A lot of these exercises are embodiment exercises: children get a self-awareness of their own body and their own place in space. If this comes through natural play, fantastic, but this just puts an extra edge on it.”
She would recommend Kids Active to other pre-school services. “It focuses people’s mind on the outdoors. I know we are very fortunate to have such outdoor facilities here but even if we didn’t, you can use a lot of these things indoors. You can push back the tables.”
Strategies for bad weather and indoor options are among the recommendations made in the evaluation study. It also suggests that a wider range of fundamental movement skills, including balance skills, be incorporated in future programmes and a component added to involve parents.
Phase two of the programme will include information sessions for parents, which the Early Childhood Ireland welcomes. “That’s really exciting. I think parents are really open to learning and knowing about these things,” says Heeney.
“It’s very important that parents are aware their children are doing this,” Hickey agrees. Fundamental movement skills is not a commonly used term, so it is important to explain how these affect the child and how families can help to encourage them in indoor and outdoor play.
“These things,” she adds, “take practice.” So remember that, the next time your pre-schooler is pestering you to take them to the park.
Facts and figures 1 in 4 children in Ireland is overweight or obese
60 minutes of daily physical activity is the national guideline for children aged two to 18
19 per cent of primary school children meet that target
180 minutes of activity a day, ranging from light to vigorous, is the UK guideline for children under five
9.1 per cent of children under five worldwide will be overweight or obese by 2020
129 minutes a day is average time spent watching TV by Irish pre-schoolers
Sources: Kids Active; Safefood; World Health Organisation Ways for parents to keep small children moving Storytime: Encourage children to move, for example, "going on a bear hunt" – over, under, around the grass and thick oozy mud. Active travel: Try to walk, cycle or scoot instead of driving where possible, or make time for an active family outing.
Losing track: Use masking tape on the floor and, with toy cars, encourage children to follow the track. For outdoors, use chalk to draw a track.
Walk like an animal: Explore with children how different animals might walk, for example, dinosaurs – big stompy steps; a snake – wriggle on the ground. Simon says: Get children moving in the car in a safe way, for example, Simon says put your hands on your head, wriggle your fingers, shake your legs.
Obstacle courses: Set up an obstacle course in the garden or house, get the whole family walking, running, crawling, jumping. See who can complete it in the quickest time.
Balloons: See how many games you can make from throwing and catching a balloon, or blow bubbles and try to pop them in different ways.
Music and singing: Dance to your family’s favourite songs.
Action songs: Encourage children to use actions for songs, for example, Twinkle, Twinkle. If the song doesn't have actions, ask them what might they look like. Source: Kids Active Programme