Isolation reshapes how kids play, stay active

Editor’s note: Visit the official Western COVID-19 website for the latest campus updates.

*   *   *

This indefinite span of COVID-19 isolation can be more than a month-long stretch on the couch for kids if parents and guardians are willing to lead the way, according to Western experts in children’s physical activity.

“It’s about being creative; it’s about mixing it up so kids have fun and don’t get bored,” said Geography professor Jason Gilliland, Director of Western’s Human Environments Analysis Laboratory (HEALab).

Statistics Canada data show just 40 per cent of Canadian children meet the recommended target of 60 minutes per day of physical activity. Today, with even fewer opportunities to exercise, it’s a safe bet kids are getting even less activity.

But that doesn’t have to be the case, suggested experts.

Gilliland suggested indoor games for younger kids, like sock soccer, balloon volleyball, or even a scavenger hunt. For older kids, link them up to online workouts or an occasional run through the neighbourhood.

Parents may also want to consider incentivizing or gamifying routine activities: a half-hour spent walking the dog could earn them an extra few minutes on FaceTime, or the sibling logging the most steps on a given day gets their choice of a favourite after-dinner game.

“If kids are playing online video games to get fake coins, why can’t there be off-line participation points, programs and games? This is a time when we should be giving our Fitbits a real workout,” Gilliland said.

Food & Nutritional Science professor Jamie Seabrook, of Brescia University College, moved the martial arts classes he teaches online through Zoom. Why not take advantage of a world of free online fitness classes – easily found on YouTube, he said.

“Kids can learn things they’ve always wanted to learn – and they have the time to do it,” Seabrook said.

What’s important is to keep kids moving and developing daily disciplines, even if it’s just to carve out time for unstructured fun, he said. “Kids of all ages, even 50-year-olds, have to develop a routine with this new world.”

These routines need to include fresh air, Gilliland added, whether it’s a physically distant game of kickball or a walk through the woods.

“We can’t only do all these online games and activities inside the house. We have to get them outside; we have to walk. Getting out in nature promotes a sense of well-being. It’s not just about physical activity; it’s also about mental health,” he said.

Once the pandemic ends, kids may find that they developed new, less structured ways to stay active.

“This might be a good opportunity to teach kids to learn to play on their own, which isn’t something we’ve done well because we are so programmed. Sports and social activity are going to continue, just at a slightly slower pace,” Occupational Therapy professor Trish Tucker said.

Down the road, kids may still need more direction from parents, even when parks and playgrounds slowly return.

“If we just show up at the park and say, ‘Go play,’ they would probably play for 10 or 15 minutes and say, ‘OK, now I’m bored. What are we going to do now?’ Maybe it will require taking a ball, taking a kite or coming up with a creative idea of what to do at the park while we’re there.”

Benefits to this new way of thinking could extend well beyond physical activity, Gilliland said.

“We can take this crisis and make it an opportunity – and one of the opportunities is that we have a lot more face time with our kids. Maybe we take this crisis as an opportunity to get to know our kids a little bit more. In some ways, they’re going to help us get through this, as well.”