Although some parents would argue that their children never sit still, South Africa is struggling to ensure its young people are physically active, which is evident in rising child obesity rates.
The recently published Healthy Active Kids South Africa (Haksa) 2018 report card assigned our children an overall grade of C for physical activity. One of the key areas where physical activity can be improved is through physical education (PE) programmes in schools.
The Haksa report gave PE in the school curriculum a grade of D—. But, rather than waiting for government to be the exclusive agent for improving this area of the curriculum, educational institutions can get the ball rolling themselves.
Some teacher training colleges have identified the gap in policy implementation of PE and are working to improve its students’ perceptions and knowledge about it.
Encouraging schools and educators to prioritise PE begins with better general training on health and the importance of healthy lifestyle choices. With training institutions helping to cultivate this understanding, new teachers will be able to have a progressive effect on the implementation of PE programmes in the schools where they go to work.
South Africa is a remarkably innovative country and schools are one of the best places to apply innovation. Often, educators or schools believe they are unable to implement PE because of a lack of equipment. But this needn’t be a barrier to get children moving. Physical activity does not necessarily require fancy equipment — it could be as simple as making a shaker from a bottle filled with beads or rice for children to use while they dance.
Government does, of course, have a role to play. In a study of 12 countries, South Africa had the greatest percentage of pupils (32%) who were not participating in PE at school.
There seems to be no clear evidence of progress in the prioritisation of PE in the school curriculum or school environment at a national level. More funding from government is required to rectify this and improve health-related knowledge, especially for teachers who are already in the system.
Education conferences often include extensive discussions on the importance of children being active, but the actual implementation of these expressed values requires greater support and a focused effort.
When prioritising PE, education departments and training institutions need to emphasise the importance of parental or caregiver involvement. If teachers are encouraging pupils to be active at school, but their parents don’t promote a healthy lifestyle at home, it will be more difficult to improve the standards of physical activity.
Education is a mighty tool for improving the lives and prospects of children and physical activity is a great tool for improving education. The Haksa report says that “there is overwhelming international evidence that physical activity and physical education in schools is positively associated with academic achievement”.
This means all parties involved in the education landscape, including government, schools, principals, teachers, parents and training institutes, can play their part in amplifying the importance of PE and help to effectively implement it in schools.
Michael Mthethwa is a physical education specialist lecturer at the Embury Institute for Higher Education’s Musgrave Campus in KwaZulu-Natal. These are his own views