Program leads 10,000 kids to active living

Special to Western News

Operated by the Human Environments Analysis Laboratory (HEALab) at Western, the ACT-i-Pass program began as a pilot research project in 2013 with 362 kids, three grants and the goal of removing economic and social barriers to activity for Grade 5 children. This year, it helped its 10,000th participant – and counting – become physically active.

A Western-led program recently reached a milestone by having helped more than 10,000 London kids become physically active. The ACT-i-Pass program, now in its seventh year, provides Grade 5 pupils free access to recreation programs across a range of agencies and facilities throughout the city.

Operated by the Human Environments Analysis Laboratory (HEALab) at Western, the program began as a pilot research project in 2013 with 362 kids, three grants and the goal of removing economic and social barriers to activity for Grade 5 children. It’s an age group when many kids drop out of sports or recreation.

“If we can stem that decline here, then they develop lifelong habits of healthy behaviours. We’re setting them up for success,” said Andrew Clark, ACT-i-Pass project co-ordinator & research associate at the HEALab.

What they’ve discovered in study after study is that it works – kids who might otherwise be at risk of falling below the recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity are now swimming, skating, bowling, and joining teams.

The impact has been particularly strong among girls, whose activity levels even six months after starting the program showed a significant increase over their levels before receiving an ACT-i-Pass card.

“It’s been an amazing project to be part of. To be able to make a difference in our community, a measurable difference, means a lot,” Clark said.

Open to Grade 5 pupils at any time of the school year (and into the summer months), registration for the 2019-20 school year has so far hit 1,700. That’s more than total the number of children enrolled for all of last year, and almost double the number ordinarily signed up this early in the school year.

Clark said a push is on to promote the program more systematically. But after six years of operation, the program is also being driven by word-of-mouth among participants’ classmates, past participants’ siblings and by the addition of summer ACT-i-Pass-eligible programming.

Pass-holders are also able to use the facility with a friend, whether that person has a pass or not, and that has also increased uptake for those looking for social connections as much as physical activity.

Clark credited Josh Archer, Manager of Strategic Community Policy Initiatives at the City of London, and the Boys and Girls Club of London as being early and continuing champions of the program.

“It’s a great program and wish more people knew about it,” said Nadine Harrison, Program Manager for Children and Youth at the Boys and Girls Club, who has been a promoter of the pass since its beginning.

“A lot of the children who come to us are in need of a program after school. They don’t always have access to a nearby recreational centre” or aren’t otherwise able to afford a membership, she said.

The centre provides shuttle buses to the centre from 18 schools and neighbourhoods in the city, and that has been a key driver of participation for ACT-i-Pass users.

“We consider them as members so they would have access to specialty things we do with other members like trips and parties and things like that,” Harrison continued.

Archer said, “Children are telling us that they are having fun with their friends, which truly speaks to the quality of the programs our partners are offering through Act-i-Pass. Through an evaluation lens, we know that this program is helping to increase the physical activity rates of children participating in the program.”

The HEALab has been one of the lead organizations of the program since the beginning, along with the Child & Youth Network, Thames Valley District School Board and London District Catholic School board and various other partners. The Western-based lab volunteers administrative support for registration, recruitment and evaluation.

The program was modeled after a Kingston, Ont., initiative (no longer operating) and is unique in the country in offering kids a year-long free pass.

“Our goal is to make all of our communities healthier,” explained Geography professor Jason Gilliland, Director of the HEALab. “The evidence is pretty solid saying that by removing economic and knowledge barriers the ACT-i-Pass improves physical activity levels.”

Archer said the pass takes underutilized space in existing programs and offers those spaces for free to participants. “Therefore, it’s not lost revenue; it’s just offering programming we already provide at no additional cost to us or Act-i-Pass participants.

There are benefits beyond activity that also make a difference, including social connections that take place.

Physically active kids are less likely to develop heart disease and other chronic diseases, have greater self-esteem, are more likely to do well in school and make friends more easily.

The program also offers access to creative arts, social activities and a variety of special-interest clubs.

“I’ve had hundreds of student volunteers work on the project – literally hundreds getting the word out. We truly believe in it,” said Gilliland, whose lab was recently nominated for a 2019 London Pillar Community Innovation Award for its work.

He said London has been a role model for other communities trying to improve physical activity among children.

The core area – which includes facilities at YMCA of Southwestern Ontario, London Children’s Museum and Boys and Girls Club – is a ‘hot spot’ for users. The push now is to improve uptake at city ‘cold spots’ where access is not as high.

Researchers found that available transportation is as important as proximity to homes in persuading kids to use the facilities. Often, parents drive kids to programs, but transportation options such as the bus/van service offered by the Boys and Girls Club “definitely open important doors,” Clark said.

Some neighbourhoods in London have participation as high as 90 per cent, Gilliland said.

“As good as that is, we won’t stop until we have 100-per-cent saturation,” he continued. “It’s successful, but I see it as a failure until we have 100-per-cent of all Grade 5 kids in all areas of the city.”

Program co-ordinators are also working with partners in Middlesex, Oxford and Elgin counties to determine how to expand to children living in communities outside of London.