In 2015–2016, a geographically comprehensive Skilled Kids study about the exercise habits of 3–7-year-old children and their parents was conducted in Finland. Based on the answers of more than a thousand parents, a total of 80% of families do not move together daily. The recommended amount of daily physical activity for under school-aged children is three hours. What does this consist of? In recent decades, even very young children have increasingly started participating in organised sports. However, exercising culture that is more and more heavily based on organised sports as hobbies could have different consequences than what is expected when it comes to young children. Do hobbies fulfill a child’s need for physical activity?
Exercising only as a hobby is learned at an early age
Parents consider exercising together as a family as a good, positive thing: when exercising together, the family members also speak with each other and act together, and this is thought to bring the family closer together. The general trend in western countries is that when the child grows older, family activities are gradually replaced by hobbies and interests.
Most children take part in sports and exercise activities organised by parties outside the family or early childhood education services even before they reach school age. Several social trends give rise to young children’s increased participation in organised sports, such as the commercialisation of the sports sector and the consequential increased and more versatile activity options available, especially in cities.
Sports hobbies are valued
Parents are known to value both a child’s participation in guided, organised sports as well as a child’s free, independent physical activity. However, parents are known to value the benefits of guided and planned organised sports to a child’s overall development and health higher than those received from independent, free physical activity.
Culture based on organised sports does not guarantee a child’s sufficient level of physical activity
What makes participation in organised sports problematic with regard to young children is the fact that studies indicate that it has an inverse correlation to children’s overall physical activity and the development of basic motor competence.
Let’s consider the bigger picture: It is known that people internationally take part in organised sports much more than over the past decades. However, no great expertise is needed to know that this does not, on average, result in a positive effect on people’s physical condition and health. The lack of physical activity in overall everyday life as well as overweight and obesity and the related health problems have increased rapidly in all western countries. With regard to children, international comparisons indicate that low overall level of physical activity and poor motor competence may be connected to exercise culture that leans heavily on organised sports and competitive sports (Laukkanen et al., 2019).
Similar phenomena can be seen in Finland: on average, under school-aged children in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area engage in organised sports more than their peers living elsewhere in Finland, but, despite this, their motor competence is still usually poorer than those of children living elsewhere (Niemistö et al., 2019). Furthermore, parents living in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area reported that their family spends less time on physical activities together than parents living elsewhere in Finland. This means that participation in organised sports does not seem to guarantee a sufficient amount of physical activity or offer the versatility needed for developing the motor competence of young children.
Organised sports can therefore be a nice addition to a child’s experiences, but, in the light of current research, it cannot be the foundation for the physical activity that is vital to the growth and development of especially under school-aged children. The right to everyday, versatile playing that is also physically active creates the basis for a child’s healthy growth and development.
Children’s physical activity is built upon shared activities
Supporting the physical activity of children through your own example as well as encouragement and praise are central ways of supporting a child’s growth and development. Shared physical activities are an excellent way to promote the example and habit of physical activity to a child. The essential thing in shared activities is to carefully observe the child’s preferences and feelings and, on the other hand, minimise the limitations and prohibitions concerning physical activities. It’s true that children are physically active by nature, but their environment can make them hide this characteristic or, at worst, erase it completely. Falling down and getting some bruises and scrapes are natural; it is important that the child can recognise the limits of their own competence. Sometimes, parental guidance and control are also needed to increase a child’s physical activity, as a young child cannot be expected to control their own screen time, for example. In such situations, it is essential to offer to go with the child or utilise your knowledge of the child to choose activities that could allow the child to find things that are interesting and inspiring to them.
Arto Laukkanen is a research professor in the Faculty of Sport Sciences at the University of Jyväskylä. His special research subject is children’s physical activity behaviour and its effects on children’s well-being and development.
Laukkanen A, Bardid F, Lenoir M, Lopes, V.P., Vasankari, T., Husu, P. & Sääkslahti, A. Comparison of motor competence in children aged 6‐9 years across northern, central, and southern European regions. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2020;30:349–360.
Niemistö, D., Finni, T., Haapala, E.A., Cantell, M., Korhonen, E. & Sääkslahti, A. Environmental Correlates of Motor Competence in Children—The Skilled Kids Study. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019, 16(11), 1989.