Eoin Fitzpatrick, a primary school principal, has seen up close the deterioration in children's physical and motor skills over the past decade or more. "Things are a lot more regimented now," he says. "There is a lot less informal play out in estates and parks. Before, kids were jumping over fences and hedges. Now you have to teach those skills specifically to kids."
Recent studies back this up with some alarming findings: children aged 12 are increasingly unable to run, jump, throw, catch or even hit any type of sports ball properly. In fact research by both DCU and UCC indicates that skills that were generally mastered by six-year-olds are now out of reach for many children by the time they reach 13. These findings all point to one thing: we are sliding towards a crisis in public health and fitness.
Where once children might have kicked a ball or hopped, skipped and jumped, now they are absorbed for hours with smartphones or iPads
What is driving such dramatic changes? It’s little surprise that experts see one main culprit: electronic devices. Where once children might have kicked a ball or hopped, skipped and jumped, now they are absorbed for hours with smartphones or iPads. Others also point to the rise of “surplus safety” as a key factor in children’s declining movement skills. The school, home and coaching environments, it is argued, have become too structured and restrict children’s ability to pick up basic movement skills.
If we are to reverse these trends, experts agree that a major challenge will involve re-educating a new generation of young people about skills once considered routine in childhood. Dr Sarahjane Belton, a lecturer in physical education at Dublin City University, says schools – at all levels – can play a crucial role. "We must now build the teaching of these skills into preschools and primary schools. We have to give children the best shot at being active," she says.
A key focus for experts is on the best way to develop “fundamental movement skills” that are critical for young people later in life”, says Dr Wesley O’Brien, a lecturer in physical education in UCC. “If children are more competent in executing these skills, then there is a significant increase in the chance that they will live an active lifestyle.”
Along with physical fitness, movement skills are also linked to weight: as a child’s skill level increases, the likelihood is that their weight will decrease. The extent to which children have lost these skills is alarming. One study, which measured the movement skills of some 250 adolescents, revealed that only one child could execute all nine of the movements. A similar study of preschool children found that just 3 per cent could perform a vertical jump, while only 2 per cent could catch a ball.
“It’s important that we don’t pin everything on schools, but they do provide a great window of opportunity,” says Dr O’Brien.
Designing a programme that will engage young people of different ages, boot their movement skills and that can be scaled up across the education system is a challenge in itself. So far researchers have been developing a series of different initiatives that varies based on the age of the children.
The programme Kids Active is being implemented in preschools following research conducted by Dr Belton at DCU. The intervention, being rolled out in conjunction with the Irish Heart Foundation, is already having a positive impact on skills acquisition in three- to five-year-old children, she says.
At primary schools, Dr O’Brien – surprisingly – advocates sidestepping the focus on sports in the PE curriculum. “Everything on the primary curriculum is sports-driven, but that’s a stage beyond fundamental movement skills,” says Dr O’Brien. The competitive aspect of sport creates a barrier for those who are struggling to access the skills, he says. Modifying the PE curriculum to put less focus on competition would, Dr O’Brien says, “create equal opportunities for all, irrespective of skill level”.
Going up a level
At second level it can get more complicated. The influence of peers, in particular, can be a real challenge. Dr Belton says this led to a tailored programme for older children that addresses children’s attitudes towards physical activity. The intervention – known as Y-path: youth physical activity towards health – is delivered by specialist PE teachers.
Research indicates there has been an increase in skill level and skill retention in students who took part. Principal Fitzpatrick supports using fundamental movement skills as the foundation for the PE curriculum. “If everyone had two years of following a fundamental movement skills programme, kids would be willing to try anything because they would see PE as fun and we could introduce the other strands after that,” says Fitzpatrick.
Similar recommendations arose during a review of PE in Finnish schools, which identified the need for a more task-oriented rather than a competitive approach.
Dr O'Brien also believes this change of mindset must be adopted in sports clubs outside of schools by removing the demand for early sports specialisation and encouraging increased sports sampling. "Kieran Donaghy and Aiden O'Shea are prime examples of top class Gaelic footballers in the air because they learned how to jump, which is an fundamental movement skill in basketball," says Dr O'Brien. "They can transfer it really well to the pitch."
Too many players
The goal may be within sight in primary schools, but are there too many players on the pitch? There is a baffling array of different approaches to choose from. Super Troopers, for example, is “active homework” designed to increase the amount of physical activity children take part in during the day. It encourages participation by the child’s family.
While schools can select programmes that best suit their community, do they have a chance if they are playing with a half-trained team?
Moving Well, Being Well, is a popular research and intervention programme currently being developed by DCU and Insight along with the GAA. Another is the Move Well, Move Often, programme developed by the Department of Education’s professional development service for teachers. It promotes a structured approach to teaching fundamental movement skills and increasing “physical literacy” in children.
Some principals, such as Fitzpatrick, feel schools would have more success in hitting their targets under one national programme, backed up with proper training. “It has to be a whole-school approach,” says Fitzpatrick, who has piloted several initiatives in his school. “Otherwise, my worry would be it’s just going to dwindle away.”
While schools can select programmes that best suit their community, do they have a chance if they are playing with a half-trained team? If teachers can be trained to deliver programmes, then schools have a realistic shot at making physical education enjoyable for all, says Dr O’Brien. “The school environment should be dedicated to optimum movement. Movement is for everyone.”
Skill proficiency among 12- and 13- year-olds
13 per cent could master the vertical jump.
11 per cent could master skipping.
29 per cent could master the horizontal jump.
45 per cent could master the overhand throw.
48 per cent could strike a ball.
- Source: DCU