Child mobility gets a D-

PHOTO: West Coast Surfer / Picture Alliance / Moodboard / Scanpix

That children no longer play outside is not a perceived myth but a fact, an analysis by University of Tartu (UT) researchers found: if Estonia gets a D- in terms of general child mobility, active outdoor playtime is only good enough for an F.

Estonia seems like a near perfect country for outdoor activity – no fewer than 90 percent of 12-17-year-olds admit that there is park, forest, hiking trail, playground or sports facility within one kilometer of their home. Yet, the analysis gives child mobility in Estonia a D- that is only a slight improvement over last year’s F.

“I believe that our methodology has simply become more sensitive and that the actual situation has not improved,” said Merike Kull, head of the university’s mobility lab. The grade is still somewhere between a D- and an F. “The fact we looked at more studies of younger children, who tend to move more, probably had a slight effect as well. More studies among 15-16-year-olds would take the score down again,” Kull said.

Playing outside is out

If the World Health Organization recommends physical activity of at least 60 minutes a day, only 16 percent of children 12-17 years of age do sports for a full hour every day in Estonia. 28 percent of 6-13-year-olds are active for at least an hour five days a week. There are other criteria.

They were analyzed primarily by research fellows from the UT Institute of Sport Sciences and Physiotherapy who looked at more that 30 health surveys carried out in Estonia. The latter include a study by the university’s mobility lab where 500 children were fitted with a motion sensor for 24 hours.

One of the group’s more important findings is that children in Estonia need to be taught how to play outside again. Scientists currently give children an F in this regard. This means that less than one-fifth of children and youths play or spend time outside.

Playing outside has been replaced by screen time. While it is recommended to limit screen time to two hours a day, less than one-fifth of children currently settle for so little.

“The premise for outdoor activity is also created when urban environments are planned. Real estate developments prioritize cars. Brush and other exciting places are cleared and paved. From there, computer and smartphone screens take up children’s attention and time,” Merike Kull said.

Only about a third of all children walk or bike to school. Scientists believe it is too little. “A generation ago, children walked to school and didn’t even think of it as physical activity,” Kull said. She added that quite a few adults cannot even imagine their child walking to school being natural and see it as an effort children need to be coerced into making instead.

“Some coaches say that walking to practice is one part of it,” Kull said.

Sports practice is rather not the problem. About half of all children attend some kind of practice which is good enough for a C. “However, studies show that attending practice twice a week is not enough to ensure necessary mobility,” Kull explained. Motion sensors show that physical activity takes place during only one-third of practice sessions. “Organized sport is important, but it must be complemented by everyday mobility.”

The Estonian child mobility survey is part of the international Global Matrix study that last measured the physical activity of children in 38 countries in 2016. Results for this year will be published in late November.

While international methodology gives Estonians schools’ contribution to promoting mobility good marks, scientists say the main reason is the country’s mandatory physical education classes. That is not the case in many other countries.

Indoors intermission

A study by the Estonian Institute for Health Development from the beginning of the year found that every fourth first-grader is overweight or obese. Senior research fellow at the institute Eha Nurk said that even though schools have sports halls and playgrounds, they are often deserted during recess.

“Only half the schools in Estonia permit playing outside during all breaks, while a tenth of schools did not allow children to play outside at all,” Nurk said.

A general education schools’ satisfaction survey asked students whether they can go outside during recess this spring. Every other fourth-grader said they are not allowed outside for the duration of the school day.

The mobility lab is working on a program to see how recess would work outside and training activity teachers who can show children how to play outdoor games.

“Behavior begins at home, kindergarten and school can only reinforce good habits,” said Pille Liblik, deputy head of the Ministry of Education and Research’s general education department. Liblik said that the ministry has supported activities within school walls similar to those of the activity program and is working on revamping the physical education curriculum.

“This means we are contributing to shaping the habits of future parents,” she added.

Health education lecturer Merike Kull said that it is not the aim of scientists to simply judge the situation with grades but that solutions of how to get children to move need to be found. A lot of countries have made it a priority as a child mobility grade of D is widespread in Europe. Better marks are given to third world countries where life forces people to remain physically active.

“Finland has taken mobility of children into focus – the topic has made it into government programs and is an education priority,” Kull said. Finland’s grades are gradually improving and are much better than Estonia’s in certain categories.

Nearly 75 percent of children walk or ride a bike to school in Finland. Kull said that local governments are going to great lengths to facilitate it. Finland earns a B+ in this category, while Estonia has to settle for a D.

“We have visited a lot of Finnish schools and seen that once recess begins, the doors are opened, and children go outside. A new kind of school culture has developed,” Kull said.

Finnish children also spend less times looking at screens and more time playing outside. The country’s mark in the latter aspect is C.

School reform in Denmark has teachers thinking of ways to get children to move for at least 60 minutes a day. Norway made that decision a year ago.

“The United Kingdom launched its 30+30 program, according to which every elementary school student has to be active for 30 minutes in school and 30 minutes after school. They do not have mandatory physical education,” Kull said and added that governments are working to get children to move. “While the survey’s grades are poor everywhere, it does not mean efforts are not made to change the situation.”

Estonia also has a green book and development plans, giving the government a B for effort (Finland got an A-). But scientists are waiting for more concrete steps. The UT mobility lab plans to propose the government put together a national children’s mobility program with specific activities.