Life is hectic and convenience is the name of the game but parents urgently need to tackle their children’s poor eating habits and sedentary lifestyles, writes Jen Hogan.
According to statistics from Safefood.eu, one in four Irish children are overweight or obese. With Ireland remaining on course to be the fattest nation in Europe by 2030 and parents appearing to find it difficult to recognise when their child’s weight is not healthy, it’s clear that this is one health crisis we can’t ignore.
Many factors have contributed to the problem — poor eating habits, more sedentary lifestyles and the one thing that most of us can relate to —hectic and time-poor lives.
As times have changed, so too have expectations of parenthood. Nowadays many households have two working parents, meaning that family time is limited and extremely precious — and what little of it we have is often surrendered to dinner preparations, housework, next day planning and the dreaded evening task of homework.
Never are the effects of homework more profoundly felt than in the dark and dreary winter months, when daylight hours are in particular short supply.
Often by the time homework battles have raged, dinner has been eaten and everything else that needs to be done, is done, it’s dark, damp and cold — and there’s not a neighbourhood child in sight.
Scheduled activities are the manner in which many children get their exercise and while taking part in anything sporty has obvious huge health benefits, the lack of regular, outdoor playing — the sort we took for granted — means that today’s children are still falling far short of recommended daily activity levels.
Nutritionist and fitness coach, Alva O’Sullivan, of Alvaosullivan.com said: “If we look at the latest research on physical activity among children in Ireland, four out of five children in the Republic don’t meet the Government’s physical activity guidelines of at least 60 minutes physical activity per day.”
Children are spending less time physically playing and getting involved in sports and much more time in sedentary activities such as using technology devices. But it’s not just levels of activity that have changed over the years, Alva explains.
“Our children’s diets have changed dramatically too,” she adds, stating that there is “an abundance of cheap, energy dense, nutritionally poor, convenience food marketed at children and busy parents.
"Children are surrounded by unhealthy, high-calorie foods advertised constantly on social media, TV, billboards, buses and bus stops, supermarket trolleys, the list goes on… To add to this, we are seeing more and more of these products in special offers e.g. buy three get one free and in supersized portions, making it all too easy to purchase and consume a lot more than we need.”
Citing a recent UK study which revealed that only 1% of parents of clinically obese children could identify that their child was unhealthily overweight, Alva says that parents often compare their own children with their peers when assessing their weight rather than looking at the medical advice and recommendations.
“I believe regular, open clinician discussion between doctors and parents about the appropriate and medically recommended weight for their child is very important to help address this issue,” she says.
When it comes to changing how our children eat Alva recommends family meal planning for the week ahead and changes to habits in supermarket product selection.
“Parents need to work on reducing as many highly processed products as possible in the trolley and swap them for whole foods (vegetables, fruits, meats, fish, eggs, dairy and simple wholegrain products),” she explains.
Diet alone will not suffice and encouraging our children to be more active involves leading by example. “Children are five times more likely to be active if their parents are,” Alva explains, advising that parents “start by thinking of ways to make family time a physical activity so instead of going to the cinema, try enjoying time together while going for a walk, climbing a mountain, taking the bikes out or going for a swim. Another fun activity you could try is getting the whole family involved in a ball game together or another fun outdoor game.
"Children don’t have to do all 60 minutes of activity at once, so on busy days just try to ensure they fit in a number of bouts of activity wherever they can throughout the day.”
Which takes us back to the problem of finding time in the day to fit in the recommended amount of activity and a consideration of whether or not homework, which when met with the resistance of tired and bored children who have already spent many hours seated at a desk with minimal opportunities for exercise, can take a lot longer than the amount prescribed by teacher might suggest.
Recent studies in the UK and Australia have suggested that homework for primary school aged children not only has no proven benefit, it can actually be counter-productive. As someone who relishes those rarely heard but hugely celebrated, afternoon-changing, five little words “we have no homework tonight”, I would love to see it abolished, which would remove much of the afternoon stress and free up some time to do more outdoorsy things together.
Grà Conway is a Tyrone based primary school teacher. She believes that homework for primary school children is not only to be a waste of time, but also a hindrance in the battle against childhood obesity.
“Generally homework for young children is useless,” Grà says.
“I think homework at primary level is an educational habit; it’s a problem that schools don’t know how to update. We know that learning needs to continue at home but cannot adapt our teaching or our understanding of learning to accommodate for a home environment that is a different environment to the school one.
"Home offers far more opportunities for learning (playing outside for gross motor and science explorations, cooking for maths and fine motor, reading, socialising) but in a more diverse range of topics and with greater opportunity for practical understanding — which incidentally is how children learn best.”
Grà says she “absolutely does think that homework can contribute to a child living an unhealthy lifestyle, particularly if they’re a child who doesn’t like it or struggles. I know of homes where homework takes up to two hours.
“For families where the parents work this creates huge challenges in helping kids be active, especially in the winter months. School is a sedentary pursuit at best of times. Children have a biological and psychological need to move. It is part of how their brain works — homework is actually working against their nature.
“In all my years in a classroom I’ve never had a student say ‘I learnt so much from that worksheet’. Similarly I’ve never had a child come back into the class and say ‘I really struggled with that in school but after that homework assignment I totally get it’.”
Alas, it appears the Department of Education and Skills have no plans to scrap homework in the near future.
A spokesperson for the Department said that “it is a matter for each individual school to set their own homework policy” and that “all schools should have a homework policy which should be prepared in consultation with parents and children”.
“The amount of homework in each class and the time to be allocated to it are key features of the school’s homework policy. As a parent, you need to be fully familiar with this policy, so as to manage the time allocated at home for your child.”
So with homework here to stay, it seems Irish parents will need to find the time elsewhere to tackle the falling activity levels among our children.