Sport is also important for the mind: Mainz sports researcher Swantje Scharenberg on lack of exercise – and what families and schools can do about it.
WIESBADEN – Mainz sports researcher Swantje Scharenberg heads the only research center in Germany for school sports and sports for children and young people (FoSS), an interinstitutional facility under the Karlsruhe Institute for Technology and the University of Education Karlsruhe.
Mrs Scharenberg, how fit are our children and young people?
The national exercise recommendation states that children should be physically active for 60 to 90 minutes a day. In Germany, only about 18 percent of children manage to do this – even going to school counts. Five years ago, the situation was much better. The gap between the unfit children and the children being promoted in competitive sports is widening.
The Kiggs study from RKI shows that there are more and more children with motor problems. What abnormalities are involved?
This is already visible in everyday motor skills, as when walking: Children with motor problems can no longer walk around, ie they can no longer perform a so-called cyclic movement. They simply lack coordination skills.
What are the reasons?
The environment and parental behavior have changed. Some of the children are very strongly regulated and cared for by their parents: they are very attentive to what they are doing and the parents are planning the day. In addition, we have more traffic in the cities and fewer opportunities to move – and therefore fewer incentives to move. For example, if you look at where there are most parking spaces, it is always right in front of the building, so you do not have to take a single step. We avoid exercise, but in fact we should do it the other way around and as adults be an example for the kids.
What is the significance of movement for spiritual development?
There is a connection between movement and learning. It has been proven that, for example, an increased blood flow – physical activity promotes circulation after all – improves mental performance. We create connections in the brain that we can fall back on for life.
Aren’t console games and Wii with dance and movement games a good alternative for city kids?
Movement is more than just motor skills. It is also about social interaction, learning from each other, constantly pushing our own boundaries. Sport also helps to overcome difficult phases. If a lot changes in the family and the sport stays the same, I have a constant that I can retire to. They do not have that with a console game or dance in front of the screen. Right now, in the Corona period, we are noticing that there is a lack of social exchange between peers.
To what extent do parents influence their children when it comes to exercise?
In the beginning, the children have only a small number of people with whom they have contact and who they can imitate. And if my picture that I have across the road – that is, my parents – hovers on the couch and does nothing, I do the same. In addition, as a parent, I can always try to create new incentives for physical activity. For example, not to park directly in front of the supermarket and not to put the child in the shopping cart to push them through the supermarket, but let them go by themselves.
What can parents do to encourage children to exercise more? And is there “good” movement?
There is no good or bad movement. All the child enjoys doing is good exercise. Parents are often also employed and therefore do not have the opportunity to supervise the children permanently. Therefore, it makes sense to let the children exercise under supervision: On the one hand in clubs, on the other hand in school in the all-day area – for example, by making sure that they also choose an exercise club.
Many children are already early in day care or crèches these days: What role do childcare and educational facilities play in motor development?
We still do not get enough exercise in the day care institutions, and for a number of years they have tried to change that. But the educators have a lot of work to do – and that comes on top of that. It is not seen that movement can be integrated into the daily day care routine and is also useful for development in other areas. And in primary schools we have the one-teacher principle. However, most primary school teachers have not received any training in exercise, games and sports – so here there is still room for improvement.
What can be improved in schools and day care centers?
A good option is for coaches from the clubs to go into primary schools or day care institutions and work with the children. This means that we get expertise from outside – this is also financially supported by many cities and municipalities. I think it’s great because it shows that we have identified a deficit here and are working in a sustainable, solution-oriented way. This is also well received by the schools and implemented in partnership.
Do other countries do better?
The Scandinavian countries are already further ahead and have completely different programs than we have – and this is also reflected in the PISA results. Internationally, emphasis is placed on making exercise more integrated into everyday school life for children of primary school age. And not only in sports, but also in mathematics or German, which is always encouraged to exercise – even during breaks.
What sport did you hate at school?
In fact, none. I come from a family of athletes and have had a wide range of basic motor training from an early age – which any child should actually receive. Gymnastics, athletics, games – especially dodgeball – I loved!