Julia Power explains how creating more outdoor play spaces could mean better health for Australian children.
Earlier this year, American public-health and urban-planning expert Dr Karen Lee visited Australia on behalf of the Heart Foundation to discuss ways governments, health organisations and planners could work more collaboratively to support community health.
Dr Lee discussed a number of strategies, including Play Streets, a New York City initiative that has achieved its goal of getting children to be more active. Play Streets aims to create a temporary space for communities to gather and for children and young people to play. This involves closing designated streets to traffic at certain times and turning them into community spaces.
Play Streets are organised by neighbourhood groups, community associations, not-for-profit organisations and schools. Farmers' markets are also used for the initiative, promoting both healthy play and access to healthy food.
The need for initiatives such as Play Streets in Australia is clear, with one in four children classified as overweight or obese and only half meeting the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity per day. Children who are less active, overweight or obese are more likely to become inactive, overweight or obese adults, placing them at higher risk of developing chronic conditions such as heart disease.
However, healthy habits are easier to keep if they have been instilled at a young age. Teaching young people the importance of making healthy choices, including being physically active, and creating an environment that supports them in these choices, will improve their quality of life in future.
Jump Rope for Heart, the Heart Foundation's physical-activity program for school-aged children, turns 30 this year. The program is a fun way to get kids moving about, while also encouraging them to be good citizens by giving back to a worthy cause for their efforts. But despite its success, the program has been foregone at schools that no longer have space for sport and physical activity as demountable classrooms take priority over ovals and playground areas.
The introduction of Play Streets in Australia could help overcome the problem of limited spaces for physical activity and encourage children to develop lifelong physical-activity habits. Dr Lee says schools could apply for Play Streets permits if they did not have enough space for physical education. "The proposal could particularly help Sydney as space shortages continue and schools go high-rise," she says.
There's a tendency to see physical activity simply as part of the obesity equation, but obesity is a major modifiable risk factor in chronic disease. Apart from disease prevention, being active can extend years of active independent life, reduce disability and improve quality of life. Regular physical activity also promotes healthy ageing and better mental and social health. For young people, it helps build their fitness, coordination, balance and fundamental movement skills.
There isn't one single solution to reducing the number of inactive, overweight or obese children in Australia. The Heart Foundation would like to see a holistic approach from all sectors of government and the community so today's children don’t become tomorrow's chronic-disease statistics.
Julia Power is media and communications manager for the NSW Heart Foundation. Visit the foundation's Healthy Kids website for information, ideas and advice for children and families.