Physical activity: some lessons from Finland

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It may sound strange, but we know very little about children’s physical activity (PA) in daycare and nurseries. How physically active are children really? What instigates PA?

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Dr Jyrki Reunamo: 'Our results show that physical activity is central to children's learning'

It may sound strange, but we know very little about children’s physical activity (PA) in daycare and nurseries. How physically active are children really? What instigates PA?

How is PA related to learning, children’s emotions and social relationships? In Finland, we monitor children’s PA nationally with random sampling, including all activities during the day. In this article, I describe some of our findings from our project’s 2015 data collection with 60,454 observations.

The first finding was that children were highly physically active on average for 47.5 minutes, between 8am and 4pm. More importantly, physical activity varied substantially across groups. In the least physically active group, children were highly physically active for only 4.8 minutes per day, while in the most active group this rose to 163 minutes.

OBJECT OF ATTENTION

Another important finding was that 68.6 per cent of children’s high PA occurred during outdoor activities. Luckily, in Finland children spend on average 91 minutes per day outdoors. We tend to have large yards and children spend time outdoors both in the morning and in the afternoon. Without outdoor activities, children would move very little. For example, during teaching sessions, which includes all kinds of guided physical exercises and sport activities, high PA occurred only in 8 per cent of children. This means that the essence of children’s PA is not in teacher-initiated activities.

We also observed children’s object of attention. Of the activities, 36.4 per cent of children’s high PA was connected with situations in which their attention was towards a group of children, even though these situations covered only 18.3 per cent of children’s whole attention. Furthermore, 31.1 per cent of children’s high PA occurred when attention was focused towards one child, although these situations consisted only in 19.1 per cent of all attention. This means that peer activities are dense with high PA.

On the other hand, only 5.5 per cent of children’s high PA occurred when their attention was focused towards the teacher, even though the teacher was the children’s main object of attention 15.7 per cent of the time. Thus, child-teacher relations are low in PA.

The results show that more than two-thirds of children’s high PA is connected with other children, while in relation to the teacher they are rarely physically active. Children’s peer relations are the key for a more physically active life. This does not mean that the teacher is not important. This means that the teacher needs to value peer relations, give children possibilities to spend time together, and provide space and tools to enhance their PA.

PARTICIPATION AND LEARNING

The importance of the nursery practitioner’s role is highlighted for children in danger of exclusion. According to our observation, children who were evaluated as withdrawn were highly physically active only 6 per cent of the time, while other children were physically active 10.4 per cent of the time. Physical activities are central tools for practitioners to help children to be included.

Children who were evaluated to need support with gross motor skills were highly physically active only 7.4 per cent of the day, while other children were highly physically active 10.5 per cent of the day. Unfortunately, this means children who need PA the most get it the least.

According to our findings, girls from immigrant backgrounds are highly physically active only 7.4 per cent of the time. Physical activity could be the best way to help these girls to be included in the group as competent participants. We as early education practitioners need to understand the connection between children’s PA and participation. PA with others is the main path to children’s shared activities.

Our results show that physical activity is also central in children’s learning. High involvement (Laevers) means children are processing their activities deeply and they are in a state of mind that is potential for learning. The observation of high PA occurred in 22 per cent of cases in highly involved activities, even though these highly involved activities consisted only of 9.2 per cent of all activities. This means high involvement is dense with high PA and is connected with learning. We need a conscious change in our nursery practices. The practice for sitting down for learning needs to be changed into a practice where children can learn together in a highly physically active environment.

Dr Jyrki Reunamo is a principal investigator, university lecturer, Department of Education, University of Helsinki

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