Active Children – A Community Challenge

16,500 steps per day

Carol Kosowan LL.B., B.A. (Law), B.A. (Policy)

What is the significance of 16,500 steps per day? It is the Canadian physical activity guideline recommended for children and youth. The guideline suggests that children and youth between the ages of 6 and 14 years should work toward adding 60 minutes of moderate physical activity and 30 minutes of vigorous activity to their day.  This is roughly equivalent to 16,500 steps per day.

The statistics on our children’s poor health and the consequences thereof are disturbing. The Active Healthy Kids Canada Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth  (2010), reports that excess weight and obesity are becoming more common even among children of pre-school age.  Citing national data that indicates that 15.2% of 2-5 year-olds are overweight and 6.3% of them are obese, the Report raises serious issues. Children who become obese before the age of 6 are likely to be obese through childhood and some estimates suggest that they are four times more likely than their normal weight peers to become overweight as adults.

Studies of activity levels in early years child care settings have shown that generally, children’s physical activity levels are low while their levels of sedentary behaviour are high.  “In fact, long periods of inactivity in this age group are common, with one study reporting that 89% of the day was spent being sedentary.” 

 Faced with statistics such as these, communities are increasingly expected to play a part in providing solutions to this growing problem. Ontario communities lack comprehensive programs that provide affordable after-school physical activity and healthy living instruction. Only 12% of Ontario’s children meet a daily level of physical activity that is optimum for maintaining health and fitness.

Even where good community programs exist, children from low income families are far less likely to take part in these programs since registration and equipment costs are prohibitive. A community that focuses solely on providing mammoth, centralized ice parks, ball parks or playing fields for organized sports teams puts the cost of activity and fitness beyond the reach of low income families.

Recognizing that healthy active living is a shared responsibility that must be addressed by all levels of government, community organizations, schools and health care providers, the Ontario government created the Healthy Communities Fund to provide grants for community initiatives that undertake a collective plan to provide healthy living strategies. The Fund requires coordination and cooperation across community sectors and provides more opportunities for provincial and local organizations to apply for funding.

Municipal governments, more than any others, play a pivotal role in providing facilities that will engage their citizens in a healthy living strategy. Policies at the local level not only provide programs and facilities but more importantly, shape community infrastructure. For what good is a park if it is impossible to access it? How does one walk in safety if there are no sidewalks or crosswalks in your neighbourhood? Why go to a park if there are no facilities in it that encourage active play?

 Municipalities can make the greatest contribution to healthy lifestyles simply by auditing existing and proposed new zoning by-laws and other policies using a matrix that assesses them through a physical activity lens.

Through the use of actual trials geared to all age groups, municipalities can accurately assess whether or not by-laws support or detract from opportunities to be active.

For example, a survey conducted by the University of British Columbia in 2008/2009 indicated that bike paths that are separated from traffic noise and air pollution by a physical barrier contribute to a cyclist’s feeling of safety and comfort which in turn encourages more people, especially women, children and older citizens, to cycle.   Yet, cities continue to rely on crude on-road cycling lanes that serve the small segment of the cycling population not deterred by large volumes of traffic, traffic exhaust and a well-placed sense of physical vulnerability.

Similarly, though cities create parks that are meant to provide children and families with recreational opportunities, the facilities are underutilized because they are either age inappropriate, boring, skewed toward male users or perceived as unsafe by parents because the route to the park or the conditions at the park indicate that children cannot go there or be there without their parents.

Parks and playgrounds should be tailored to the characteristics and demographics of individual neighbourhoods. Staffing playgrounds with outreach workers and recreational leaders can alleviate parents’ concerns about safety and should become the “new normal” for all park planners.

Municipalities across the country are becoming the architects of healthy living strategies that not only seek out and engage community partners, but take a creative, sometimes unorthodox approach to solving community problems that have formerly been seen as intractable. The result has been community plans that make use of local resources, even if at first blush, there seems to be no obvious link between the partners.

     Consider the ingenious solution offered by community gardeners in Portland, Oregon. Volunteers with a local organization called Youth Grow started after-school garden clubs and summer garden camps for children of all ages, dug out and planted school gardens and conducted  parent/child workshops on gardening. School grounds that normally lay fallow and unused during the summer vacation became community gardens, tended by children and their families. Not only did families learn how to grow their own vegetables, they also met many of their like-minded neighbours and shared a harvest of fresh produce.

     Municipal partnerships will necessarily be broadly based and will differ from place to place. A successful local strategy will take a population-wide approach, promote active transportation, focus on the built environment and have a continuous monitoring system in place that evaluates the successes and the failures.

     According to the The Active Healthy Kids Canada Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth  2010, municipalities get a grade of “D” for municipal policies and

regulations that address barriers to physical activity even though there is widespread official recognition that the built environment can either promote or hamper such activity. There simply has not been enough emphasis placed on using tools such as density bonuses, fee waivers, fast-tracked permits and other incentives to assist developers that meet active living guidelines for youth, families, women and seniors “aging in place”. While some communities have been leaders in this regard, most have a great deal of catching up to do.

One response to “Active Children – A Community Challenge

  1. I grew up next to a small park in this city. The park was the playground for all the kids in the neighbourhood. Long remembered games of football and baseball were played there by kids from 7 to 17, even tho it was not an official city ball diamond or football field. Trees ringed the outside of the park by the road and the neighbouring properties giving shade and delineating the playing field. Most of the games were pick up games that one joined simply by showing up altho we all remembered one year when the local high school football team had an illegal pre season practice in our little park. I was away from Windsor for a number of years and upon my return I could not help but notice how few kids there were in the old neighbourhood. Everyone I guess had grown old together. Maybe that explains why nobody objected when some geniuses in the Parks Department decided to green up the park by planting trees throughout. It looks pretty enough now but there’s no way to play ball there with trees in the middle of our ‘stadium’ and when I drive by my beloved old park these days, I never see anybody there.

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