MATT COOPER: Our kids are falling behind in the one race in life that really matters

LAST Monday I set out to demonstrate to my kids the adage that there is no such thing as bad weather which should dissuade physical activity, merely unsuitable clothing.

A gale was whipping up in Killarney and the rain had started to fall, but I insisted we were going for a walk around the National Park out at Muckross. My children, not a teen among them, began openly to question my sanity. Why were they expected to go out in this weather? What had gotten into me? That’s when I threw the mantra at them, to be met with eyes rolling. I was not to be deterred.

First I brought them to a newly-opened outfitters and kitted them and myself out with the necessary rainwear that they and I didn’t already have. Then we drove out to the park kitted out and left my wife — who only indulges me to a point — and youngest in the car to wait for us. She didn’t expect we’d be long.

We only walked for little more than an hour before returning, but it was the bad weather that actually made the day.

The wind was blowing an enormous spray along the lake, giving the kids the opportunity to see for themselves what speed the wind can reach. They found themselves being blown back by the gales regularly in a way they had never experienced before, even as they walked through the woods.

They were shouting and roaring and laughing and crying as they faced into the wind and rain, and they loved it. We all agreed we should do things like this every week — whatever the weather. The worse the weather the better it might be.

The previous Friday I had attended the annual all-Ireland sports conference organised on a cross-border basis by the Irish Sports Council in conjunction with its Northern counterpart.

The theme was active participation for everybody, adult and child. The opening speaker, a man from Colombia who now lives in Canada but who has designed active living spaces in both countries, made a compelling argument in favour of the simple physical activities of walking and cycling.

Gil Panalosa produced picture after picture of how cities like Bogota and, perhaps with more relevance to an Irish audience, Copenhagen, showing how they had been transformed to give clear distinctions between walkways, cycling lanes and transport, thereby encouraging walking and cycling.

Both counties suffer greater extremes of weather than we do in Ireland, but this was rejected as an excuse. Both cities got on with it. Even New York is doing so, having reclaimed much of the space for cars for active public use. Unfortunately, I suspect the lack of money will prevent such imaginative action here, particularly in the older parts of cities. Cycling may fail to reach the level of popularity it should until such time as physical demarcations are put in place greatly to enhance safety.

But there are positive signs: the number of cycling-related fatalities on Dublin streets, for example, has plummeted since the ban on five-axel trucks entering the city centre was introduced. The city council-sponsored hire-a-bike scheme, financed by private operators in return for advertising space, has proved itself a resounding success.

While my kids have bikes I’m keen they use them in public parks and not on dangerous roads. But there are plenty opportunities simply to get out and walk and run in our parks, as well as becoming involved in active sport.

The importance was stressed in a presentation made to the conference by Dr Catherine Woods from Dublin City University, following a major piece of research conducted by her university, UCC, University of Limerick and the Irish Sports Council.

It found that our children simply are not active enough. Only 19% of primary and 12% of post-primary schoolchildren met the recommended 60 minutes daily of moderate to vigorous physical activity (something that improves long-term health dramatically). Girls do worse than boys and the older all of them got, the less likely they were to do as required. One in four children is unfit, overweight or with elevated blood pressure.

Walking or cycling to school can help dramatically, but only 31% of primary children and 40% of post-primary children do so. Not all of this can be blamed on excessive distance from school.

The school curriculum is not helping either. On average primary pupils receive a mere 46 minutes of physical education weekly, rising to 77 minutes in post-primary. A lack of indoor facilities gets the blame in 81% of primary schools and 29% of post-primary. Less than two-thirds of primary schools participate in extra-curricular sport at least one day a week and less than three-quarters of secondary schools.

For this reason what happens outside of school, in clubs, becomes particularly important. In other words, the work of volunteers in clubs — most particularly in the GAA, but also swimming, soccer and rugby — is keeping some of our children fit: our state-funded education system seems to be deficient in this regard. But if we want to educate our children properly, then surely physical education has to have a greater role in teaching them how to be healthy and it also enhances a child’s likely attention span for non-sporting work?

The physical education curriculum in general, and as implemented by most schools, clearly is seriously deficient. It does not provide enough time or enough variation. Children need an involvement in both individual and team sports, but they are not getting it.

THERE is considerable evidence to show that many children opt out of sport entirely once they reach their adult years if they have had little exposure to individual pursuits, yet often they are forced into team sports and only stick with these if they are regarded as good enough to represent the school at competitive level.

One of the arguments that schools make is that they do not have enough facilities. Some clearly don’t have the use of indoor halls or outside pitches or are not located near publicly available swimming pools.

However, the flipside is that when they do have the required facilities they are often not fully utilised by the community at large, including outside sports clubs.

Schools have to be persuaded to make their facilities available to the local communities, but often are most unwilling to do so. Insurance costs are often provided as the explanation, but it is an excuse to stop what would be a hassle for those involved in the management of the schools.

That must change. One of the few upsides of recession is that it apparently helps encourage many people to take a greater interest in their physical wellbeing and to become more actively involved in sporting activity — for social reasons, too. They will do so as long as it is affordable. Time has been the main issue preventing involvement by many people and that remains the case for many of those lucky enough still to be holding jobs and who may be putting in even longer hours to keep their work, but occasionally time, rather than money, can be better spent. No matter what the weather.

The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm.


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