Published July 13, 2018 in the Mail and Guardian.
By Michael Mthethwa
The days of developing gross and fine motor skills in children by letting them climb trees or helping them to make kites are long gone. So too are games in the park and walks on the beach — leaving a trail of digitally focused teenagers who otherwise get little or no exercise, and so don’t develop the skills and stamina to keep them fit in later life.
Part of the problem, it seems, is the fact that physical education was removed from the South African schools’ curriculum in 1994 and only reintroduced 19 years later in 2013 as part of the new national curriculum.
Against the shift in curriculum is a generation of teachers who lack teaching skills in physical education and school sports. Then there’s the niched group of teachers who currently head sport-related programmes in schools but who lack the necessary experience.
This has a knock-on effect on the quality of how physical education programmes are delivered in schools.
A gap therefore exists in teacher education between physical education and school sport, which requires addressing. Teachers need to be trained and equipped to recognise that a child’s interaction with others during early movement and play is critical for the development of interpersonal skills that are carried into later life.
A child’s ability to “play well with others” in their formative years can have a transformative impact on their social skills during their lifetime.
Parents today also know all too well the short-term physical impact that one too many sausage rolls at the school tuck shop has on their children, from lethargy to diabetes and weight gain. Many parents try to balance their children’s diet with veggies and take them to parks to run around on Sundays. But is that really enough?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that children and youth aged five to 17 accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily. By this estimate, it is clear that most children fall short of achieving this goal, although parents may consider them to be active. With a busy but inactive, tech-focused lifestyle, are we losing the battle?
The WHO notes that, for children and young people, physical activity includes play, games, sports, transportation, chores, recreation, physical education or planned exercise, in the context of family, school and the community.
If it is done correctly, physical education can yield a number of benefits, the more obvious examples being a good skeletal structure and posture, improved gross and fine motor skills, and the development of core muscles.
But physical education can also influence pupils’ concentration, often marked by less fidgety, more focused behaviour during class. Without being conscious of it, pupils are taught social, team and leadership skills and even gain an understanding of their own space and balance, while also addressing visual and auditory processes for the individual.
For children, the importance of curriculum-based physical education training should not be undervalued, and this starts with enthusiastic and qualified teachers.
Because the new curriculum places a significant emphasis on movement, physical education needs to be reimagined to adapt to the times. Modern-day qualified physical education teachers need to know how to break down different types of movements, such as skipping, leaps, jumps, forward rolls and gallops.
Although this may seem elementary, there are indeed children who struggle with these basic physical activities or movements, and it is these skills that set the foundation for future development.
Specialist physical education teachers should aim to foster a love of movement among children — a leap away from the sedentary modern lifestyle that is detrimental to health and wellbeing.
Apart from a lack of training skills, modern physical education teachers also face challenges such as large classes and no sport facilities.
To counter these obstacles, these teachers should be able to incorporate movement-based activities that can take place within a small group in any accommodating space, which doesn’t have to be as big as a sports field. For example, each physical education session could start with a basic warm-up routine and end with a cool-down.
A series of activities can then ensue during which pupils are kept busy with distinct types of movements or skills, so that they are engaged for a period of time and are continuously moving. This approach to simple movement aims to teach a positive attitude towards a more active lifestyle.
Given that schools play such a pivotal role in children’s lives, it is critical that they gear up the delivery of their physical education programmes.
Qualified specialist teachers could go a long way towards narrowing the gap between our digitally focused children and their physical needs by establishing a lifelong love of movement.
Michael Mthethwa is a physical education specialist lecturer at the Embury Institute for Higher Education’s Musgrave Campus in KwaZulu-Natal