Motivating lazy children

Young teenage boy lying on couch.

At a glance

  • All children are born active; some kids just learn ‘lazybone' habits.
  • The younger the better when it comes to encouraging physical activity.
  • Parents and other family members are the best role models.
  • Choosing ‘active' gifts and limiting screen time will help motivate children to exercise.
  • ‘Active' parenting may be needed to help start some children moving.

Why do some children lead a lazybones life, while others tear around the sports field? Is it a hereditary trait? And what can parents do to encourage those children to get up off the sofa, or switch off the computer, and get a little physical?

Children's exercise specialist from Melbourne's RMIT University Dr Jeff Walkley says while everybody is born active some children learn a few lazybone habits early on, and in those cases parents can play a vital role in helping those kids to get moving a little more.

A really successful sofa extraction also requires some active parenting to keep kids moving.

"There is no person that is born lazy, but they become lazy because of the type of experiences they are provided. There's good evidence from an evolutionary point of view that you and I and everyone else were born to move regularly," he says.

Fundamental movement skills

There are fundamental movement skills that everybody needs to develop to participate fully in physical activity. These include throwing, kicking, catching, running and striking.

"We know that children are capable of learning these skills but they require support, assistance and guidance from other people," Jeff says. 

"They get that typically from an adult who can provide opportunities to learn how to do a throw or a catch or a kick."

NSW public schools focus on fundamental movement skills through programs like Live Life Well @ School. Parents can help support this learning by giving their kids opportunities to play and practise these skills, showing kids what to do and how to do it, as well as the fun to be had.

Skills for young kids

  • Balancing
  • Running
  • Jumping
  • Catching

Skills for older primary school kids

  • Hopping
  • Side galloping
  • Skipping
  • Over-arm throwing
  • Leaping
  • Kicking
  • Two-hand striking
  • Dodging

Helping kids develop these active skills is really important because the older they get, the more self-conscious they can become. Many kids become reluctant to exercise simply because they are aware they can't do it very well, and don't want others to see them fail, Jeff says.

"Once children get to about nine or 10 [years old] and they know they can't do certain skills successfully, they will actively avoid being exposed to situations where their skill inadequacy is available for the observation of their peers," Jeff says.

Switching off

Parents can help encourage exercise by limiting those activities that revolve around sitting and watching screens. Any more than two hours of small screen time a day can have a significant impact on health.

Postdoctoral fellow with the NSW Centre for Overweight and Obesity Dr Louise Hardy is currently researching the effects of limits on screen time. She says the best way for parents to help is to provide opportunities for children to be active. Don't buy e-games as presents; instead give kids ‘active' presents such as balls, bats and totem tennis that all the family can play.

But active presents won't do it alone. A really successful sofa extraction also requires some active parenting to keep kids moving in different ways through the day, says Jeff.

"There'll be some children reluctant to do things because they've never had the expectation before. And at those times it really does come down to the strength of parenting and practising active parenting."

Tips for getting kids physical

  • Choose activities that your child already has some skill in to build confidence, eg don't choose tennis if they have difficulty with ballgames.
  • If they don't like traditional sports, try recreationally focused activities such as skateboarding, cycling or flying a kite.
  • Organise occasions where your child can be active with or around other children so they can experience some success among their friends and develop confidence.
  • Drop the kids off two blocks from school and watch them walk in.
  • Explore different ways of being active, eg starting a garden provides a tangible reason to be active every day.
  • Build physical activity into the daily routine, eg active travel, or 30 minutes of physical activity before starting homework.

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