I am reflecting on chairing a work webinar about supporting children’s healthy food and activity choices. It finished moments ago. The statistics from the NHS’ National Child Measuring Programme were shared and they are nothing short of startling. There is a clear link with the pandemic. It has made what was already a concerning picture even worse.
Childhood obesity is a significant problem, we all know that. We hear it often enough. And children are soaking up the messages, the misinformation, the emotional anxiety and confusion, like sponges. The rates in children have been fairly static since 2006. For reception aged children (that’s those aged four and five years) around 23% were found to be obese or overweight. Almost a quarter. But since the pandemic they have increased to almost 28%. That’s a five per cent jump upwards. Those classed as obese have risen from 9.9% to 14.4%, and severely obese children have doubled and are now 4.7% from 2.4%.
What is even more depressing is things progressively worsen by the time children are in year six (aged 10 and 11 years). By then the rates (2020-2021) are obese and overweight 40.9%, obese 25.5%, and severely obese 6.3%. This data is staggering. What was once atypical is now becoming the norm. I wonder how long it will take for the norm to become the majority?
The solutions are out there, we know that to solve the problem healthier food choices and physical movement are the answer. The Holiday Activities and Food (HAF) programme is a wonderful way to achieve that for the most disadvantaged families. But I fear we are not all being bold and ambitious enough in changing the ways we all behave and structure the lives of our children and young people. This is a matter for HAF and all services for children and their parents.
Once a playworker, always a playworker I say. And that indeed was one of my earliest jobs. I learned then its potent power and how it could change lives. I noticed how active learning is hugely impactful. After all, it suits the learning style of so many of us. But alas, too often the emphasis in schools is placed upon sitting down, making small marks on paper, walking not running, and tightly packed timetable crammed to bursting with ‘learning’ leaving creativity and activity on the cutting room floor.
Can someone, somewhere please have the courage to reinvent this learning wheel? I heard the other day a story of how a boy had been found to be unable to settle in class, no doubt wanting and needing to expend pent-up energy fuelled by whatever was happening in his life and psychology and physiology. The response was to remove his opportunity for a breaktime. I would have proposed a longer breaktime myself.
I call for lots of running in corridors, for children to be seen and heard, for freer timetabling, for active and engaging learning, problem solving, outdoor time and learning, and breaktimes as rewards and solutions to needs (sometimes called punishments or detentions). There should be better school food, that children will want to eat as they will be so ravenously hungry after all this activity. It seems we need to change our language too. I am not asking for much. Pretty sure it would result in happier, healthier children to boot, and easily reverse that trend in those graphs and stats.