Childhood is a stage of human development full of promise and endless possibilities. The influences that shape the mind and body of the young person have lasting effects. These include the obvious such as factual knowledge and conceptual thinking as taught in schools, as well as the general development of value systems and a sense of morality as shaped by family and society. What, then, is the role of physical activity?
Physical activity in childhood is not simply play. The developing child has large amounts of energy. From the moment a child becomes mobile and starts walking, the environment is a source of stimulation. As the mind develops, so too does the body. Every aspect of movement has purpose. Hand-eye coordination, muscle mass and strength, and endurance develop. The role of genetic potential is important, especially for later performance, but every child has potential talent. The development and use of this talent is shaped primarily by environmental influences.
Our modern South African society sets particular limits on childrens opportunities to develop physically. Many children have to commute long distances to school. Playing in the street is dangerous, and caregivers often get home late in the day. The result is fewer chances for creative play and physical activity in children of all ages. Added to this is the explosion of interest in electronic entertainment, which mostly involves little movement.
Research is shedding light on the effects of this trend of decreasing physical activity on the health of children. As lifestyles become more inactive, the amount of muscle mass and bone density in children is decreasing. The full results of this trend may only be revealed in a few generations, but other effects are more evident now. It is common knowledge that childhood obesity is steadily on the increase across the world. Diseases such as hypertension and adult-type diabetes are more common now than a few decades ago.
The Barker Hypothesis postulates that many adult diseases have their roots in childhood. Cardiovascular disease may well be minimised in adult populations by addressing issues such as physical activity and lifestyle in children.
Diet plays a huge role in the health of the growing child. Fast-food availability and increasing reliance on refined and easily prepared foods are only part of the problem. In urban South Africa, children simply eat too much of the wrong stuff! Myths and urban legend abound as children are fed an increasing amount of faddish supplements in hope of compensating for generally unbalanced diets.
But there is hope. Our youth have vision but need guidance and opportunity. The encouragement of sport and physical activity at grassroots level can be used as a vehicle for social upliftment. One needs only to look at people like Lucas Radebe to see how role models such as these are desperately needed for our youth.
But joining the ranks of international sports stars should not really be the aim of school sports. After all, very few will have the ability and opportunity to achieve such dizzy heights. Rather, the ethos of hard work and self-discipline is the ultimate goal of committing oneself to a sporting code. We should aim to nuture generations of young people who truly understand that only through constant striving, self-improvement and focus can they achieve their potential.
As a society, we need young people who can apply the values they learn through physical training in whatever career they choose. The sports field can be used as a microcosm to teach children how to deal with challenges such as success and failure, and give them the tools not only to invest in their physical health, but also to cope with challenges. If we do this, we have given every child the opportunity to achieve his or her potential not only on the sports field, but in life.
Dr Karbanee is currently researching physical activity in childhood at the University of Pretoria, and is a black-belt karate instructor