Kids get big benefits from programs that support physical literacy

Every Tuesday and Thursday, a mini army of about 200 descends on the Newfoundland and Labrador Sports Centre in St. John's. Dressed in tiny sneakers, leggings and joggers, they squeal with the delight of having a full gymnasium - the largest in Atlantic Canada - to themselves, to do all the things they're not able to do in the living room at home: running, kicking, throwing and tumbling among them.

This is Active Start, a partnership program between the sports center, Sports NL and Rugby NL. It's a free drop-in-style program for kids up to age six. With some basic equipment like mats, tunnels, balls, hula hoops and skipping ropes (and a separate area for the littlest of kids), the program gives children the chance to experience fundamental movements and improve their physical literacy.

You can learn more about physical literacy here, but it's all about the mastering of fundamental movement and sport skills to allow kids—and adults—to participate in physical activity with confidence.

According to Sport for Life, research has shown that young children who get a sufficient amount of physical activity see benefits in terms of brain function, imagination, gross motor skills, coordination and social skills.

"All skill development is based around repetition, even at a young age," says Simon Blanks, Active Start program coordinator. "When you are able to run, jump, crawl, catch, throw - these are life skills." Blanks was involved in establishing the program seven years ago, testing it on his own children, who are now eight and 10 and very involved in organized sport, from rugby and soccer to gymnastics and martial arts.

"The environment we present (with Active Start) does have a positive correlation with organized sport," Blanks says.

“Children who are physically literate and have exposure to a variety of fundamental sports skills early on are more likely to participate in organized sports later,” he says, and they're less likely to develop childhood diabetes or childhood obesity.

Blanks is a big believer in daily physical activity classes at school, without exception or choice. "There's a huge benefit to the health system," he says, as well as at home, no matter what the weather.

In Blanks' home, he uses that industry to his kids' advantage on bad weather days, with exergames that make them sweat. They'll also do some calisthenics, and they have fun inventing games that require jumping or rolling or other physical activity - similar to what the Active Start participants do on a younger level.

"I'm really proud of the program and how it's grown. My hope is that kids have a good experience and then perhaps come back to try my rugby program. That's my ulterior motive," he says with a chuckle.

ParticipACTION and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador are working together, with support from Recreation NL, to inspire families to make physical activity a higher priority in daily life.