Originally published Feb. 17, 2021 in The Daily Trib.

By Daniel Clifton

Misti Atkinson picked up her mobile phone, shaking her head. The physical education teacher at Packsaddle Elementary School in Kingsland blames the easy accessibility of electronics for a drop in the physical fitness level of today’s kids.

“It’s too easy just to hand (phones and tablets) to kids to keep them entertained,” she said, brandishing the device. “And, it’s too easy for kids just to play with these instead of going outside.”

Health and fitness levels of the current generation of American youngsters are slipping compared to previous generations, and not just because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has kept many in lockdown and learning from home. In some studies, the current generation is on target to be more overweight and less physically fit than any generation before them.

Technology and cellphones are only part of the problem, according to Atkinson and other physical fitness experts.

“A lot of the kids can’t even do some of the basics, like jumping rope,” she said. “If we could just get back to the basics, something as simple as families going on a walk together.”

Family activities, such as hiking, do more than improve fitness. When the whole family is involved, kids see firsthand what’s important to parents and begin to model that behavior.

Kingsland School physical education teacher Juliete Sueltenfuss agreed with Atkinson’s assessment. She teaches kindergarten through 12th grade at the charter school.

“Physical fitness doesn’t have to be complicated,” Sueltenfuss said. “A lot of what we’ve done is go back to basic things like hula hoops, jumping rope, and even hopscotch. When’s the last time you played hopscotch?”

Sueltenfuss keeps hula hoops and jump ropes handy on the playground, along with chalk for the kids to draw hopscotch courts. Several high school students started a jump rope club that meets after class.

Also, don’t overthink it, Atkinson continued.

“Go out and play catch with your kids,” she said. “Or, play basketball. Parents don’t have to be an expert at a sport; just get out and play it with their kids.”

For more ideas on simple fitness activities, Sueltenfuss recommended, well, turning to technology. Yep, she uses YouTube channels such as GoNoodle-Get Moving and MoveToLearnMS for ideas. You can follow along to many of the videos, some of which only last a minute or two.

“But they’re great if you just want to get kids up and moving for a quick break,” Sueltenfuss said. “You can also find lots of games and find other physical activity ideas.”

Another go-to planning source is Asphalt Green, a physical education organization in New York City. Its website has a number of ideas for all PE grade levels.

“Parents can modify them for what they need or just use them for ideas,” Sueltenfuss said.

She has found another great motivator to get kids moving.

“It’s competition. You know how kids are with competition,” she said.

Atkinson advocates keeping it simple, even with competition. Find activities that can include the whole family, just the kids, or even alone.

“Jumping rope, how easy is that to do? All you need is a jump rope,” she said.

If your kids aren’t sure how to jump rope, play hopscotch, four-square, or other simple but physical games, they can always take out that phone or tablet, at least for a minute, to find a how-to video.

“But then do it,” Sueltenfuss said with a laugh. “Don’t just watch it. Go out and do it.”

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