April 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Let’s Build a More Physically Active World | Editorial

editorial_picMost of us could benefit from more physical activity, for sure, but so could our children. Study after study shows that kids thrive when they get the play and exercise they need. Like grown-ups, they are happier, sleep better, and even learn better. So, why do we increasingly encourage a sedentary lifestyle?

This question has nagged at me over the years but formed fully when I encountered what I now consider to be the best playground ever—a wonderful park that extends along the bank of the Neckar River in Heidelberg, Germany. Everything about the place urged kids to move their bodies. At first, I was most impressed by the complex and beautiful series of dams, spigots, and wheels that kids could manipulate. And they did. Despite the cool weather (we were on spring break), kids, from toddlers on up, got soaked as they moved levers, waded upstream and down, and tested gravity while splashing.

Then I was thrilled by the sight of children perched high in the fruit trees—and a notable absence of shrill voices calling them down.

It was a scene full of kids exploring a space built to complement the natural world. In stark contrast to the extreme caution I have grown used to in today’s playgrounds in the United States, I witnessed unprecedented calm among the parents around me. Far from laissez-faire, their attitude seemed to be intentional, inviting intrepid young spirits to flourish.

Consider that one quarter of Americans are technically “inactive,” meaning we don’t engage in any physical activity at all, according to a study by the Physical Activity Council. While this report defines inactivity as not participating in team, individual, or fitness sports and thus doesn’t capture movement inherent in a workday, walks to work, or home responsibilities—this is still alarming.

editorial_2We know the pressures: the increase in desk jobs, digital entertainment, and long commutes. Our kids experience hours of relative stillness at school desks, with limited recess and physical education classes and increasingly structured after-school activities. Then there’s our culture of constant adult supervision, which discourages the kind of independent outdoor exploration enjoyed by previous
generations—everything from walking to school to playing tag with the kids on the block. Today, so-called “free-range parents” risk intervention by disapproving peers or even law enforcement for letting their kids push boundaries. We’re at risk of reinforcing a cycle that compromises energy levels today and well-being for the long run. Adults who don’t move their bodies model the same behavior for all of the kids around them. We are creating a culture that has lost the urge to move.

There are antidotes in the works as well, with the rise of standing and walking desks and new designs for active chairs and stools. Some libraries offer programming such as story walks, yoga classes, and more. But we should do more to confront how we have gotten here, and find a way back to motion. We must also address how we foster fear about the natural and physical world with rules, limits, and simple lack of exposure to wilderness.

Sometimes it seems as though we spend the first 18 years of kids’ lives training out the urge to move and leave them with the challenge of training it back in for the rest. We can do better. I’ll start with myself. I have spent my share of caregiving energy helicoptering, saying “No” and “Be careful.” Now, I am not so sure that’s a good idea. Moreover, I’ve found myself watching instead of joining in the fun. From now on, I’ll try to say “Yes,” “You can do it!,” and “Let’s go climb that tree together.”


Rebecca T. Miller

This article was published in School Library Journal's August 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller (rmiller@mediasourceinc.com) is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.

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