Finland, media and social media alike, has been buzzing the past days about an article by Urheilusanomat regarding the lack of exercise (or physical activity) by kids in Finland. Urheilusanomat got a preview on Liitu, a study about the exercise habits and levels of Finnish school kids, and the results were shocking. Check these out: (all info from the article)
– in a study covering 14 kindergartens, none of the 3-years old kids fulfilled the recommended level of activity. The recommendation? A whopping 1 hour per day of moderately taxing physical activity. That’s like, one hour of running around playing tag!
– in schools, aged 7-16, 1 out of 5 fulfills the recommendation of minimum of 1 hour per day of physical activity. And the trend is very much downward-sloping: for 5th graders 1/3 meet the criteria, 1/5 of 7th graders, and mere 1/10 of 9th graders.
– on the other hand, out of the same group, 95% spend more than recommended on “screen time”. That is, in front of the TV, computer, tablet and phone. (Disclaimer: I don’t know if time spend in front of a screen doing school related things is included or not, which is fairly relevant given how schools are more and more moving away from traditional books and towards multimedia.) Oh, and the recommendation: 2 hours per day everyday.
Why is this, then? Why aren’t the kids more active? 59% said it’s because they “can’t be bothered to go”. Other often-quoted reasons were lack of instruction, lack of time, and other hobbies.
I started thinking about this, and in the following I’m going to do something that I absolutely hate when discussing social issues. I’m going to tell you about me.
Personally, I’ve always liked the way sports and other hobbies have been kept separate of schools in Finland, as opposed to, for example, the American model. Why? Because that way one’s social circle isn’t limited to one thing: school. I had my school friends, the group I hung out with at school and often after school, too. But I also had my figure skating friends, and later my cheerleading friends. I knew that my friend T from school had her horse riding friends outside of school circles. K had football friends. L had violin lessons and friends in the music school in addition to us at school. Your friendships at school weren’t defined by your hobby.
And I liked that! Maybe more so because having grown up in the Helsinki metropolitan area I had pretty much the best opportunities to have different hobbies, as far as availability and access go. I was privileged by the simple fact that I live in a large city. But still, school was about school. And hanging out with friends. Not about what else I liked doing.
But the way sports were done in sports clubs also created its own set of problems. Clubs are focused on competing and on finding new talents. I was good enough in figure skating to be moved forward in the synchronized skating program (I preferred the team setting, more friends to hang out with). By the time I was 14 or so, I was practicing 6 times a week. Weekdays, weekends, after school, before school, sometimes even during school, like when I spent PE practicing the steps for our short program while everyone else was learning to skate backwards.
However, my focus at that time was in school work. I wanted to get into a good high school, and then go to university. Synchronized skating was never going to be my life ambition, it was something I did because it was fun. At 6 practice sessions in a week it wasn’t fun anymore.
So I quit.
At that time I was so done with the sport that I didn’t touch my skates for years.
In a 2012 study of 14-15 years old athletes the most important reason for doing sports was having fun and enjoying the sport, according to Outi Aarresola of KIHU (a Finnish research center for sports). In the Liitu study of 11-15 year old kids 28% had quit a club, and 64% of those kids would love to continue if possible. 85% said the reason for quitting was tiring of the sport.
I would have loved to continue. Not at the point where I finally decided to quit, at that point it was too late. Like the 85%, I was too done with it all. But had I, year or so earlier, had the opportunity to say “I can do once or twice a week, but no more” I would have kept on skating. I loved it! I still do! There’s no feeling comparable to the blade biting into the ice. And that moment when you hit the perfect glide where it almost feels like you’re flying on the ice? Magical. It’s a really nice feeling. I would have loved to keep on skating. Just not 6 times a week!
At that point, doing sports was such an integral part of my life, however, that I looked for something else to do. I had been doing some sort of physical activity since I was 4. It started at gym for kids, then at the age of 6 I picked up ballet. I loved it, and I was so proud when at 8 (which is the age limit) I already had the required two years of ballet under my belt and I could get the pointe shoes. I felt like a real ballerina! Slowly my focus shifted to skating.
So when I quit, I was already in the habit of doing something active regularly, an important determinant in how active you’re likely to be for the rest of your life. I picked up cheerleading, first competitive, then at sports games (yes, with the Helsinki IFK. I refuse to apologize for my love of them because, really, it’s just good taste.) where the time commitment was more reasonable.
After the less-than-athletic years of university life, almost three years ago I found myself graving for that activity that doing sports brings. Carrying on my tradition of only doing sports where you get to wear skirts, I chose tennis. And so for almost three years now I have, once a week and under the compassionate guidance of a professional coach, hit the ball into my own face. (Okay, I’ve only done that twice. And once I hit myself in the leg with my racket while serving. And one time I tripped over my own racket. The way I play, even tennis is a contact sport.)
That’s what we need to offer the kids. Not the tennis ball to the face because that actually hurts, but an opportunity to play a sport, be active, without the push towards competitive career. I understand that while this is doable in something like tennis, in team sports it is not so easy. We’d basically need two parallel structures. That’s where the schools could step up to the plate. Let the kids who just want to play basketball for fun play at school, maybe even against other schools, and then let those who want to do it more seriously play with the sports clubs. Let’s find a way kids can just play and have fun. Where they don’t have to be the best, or compete viciously against one another. Where the commitment is enough at once or twice a week. Where you don’t have to do sports, but you just get to play. As a hobby.