Submitted by Tim Berret, AMA Youth Run Club Ambassador
As a parent, athlete, researcher, and promoter of physical activity, when my children started attending Westglen School in Edmonton, I was keen to ensure that, along with their peers, they enjoyed the benefits associated with being active. When I grew up (in England), I was fortunate to attend an elementary school that offered a number of opportunities for both organized and recreational sports and activities. In retrospect, this early exposure to a variety of sports paved the way for me to discover a passion in one particular sport (track and field) that I first tried when I was about 8 years old. It wasn’t until six years later that I first attempted the event (race walking) in which I would eventually participate in five Olympic Games. As was the case with most of my team-mates who competed internationally, I did not discover the sport in which I eventually competed until I was in my teens. So, I know from first-hand experience the benefits of exposure to multiple forms of exercise in the development of athletes and strongly support the notion of Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) and the avoidance of early specialization. However, I also recognize the health and social benefits that can come from participation in physical activity at an early age, regardless of a child’s potential to pursue a career in sport.
My children are fortunate to have the support to enable their involvement in out-of-school organized sport, but I recognize that, for a variety of reasons, not every child has this opportunity. So, I was determined to provide children with an avenue to explore different sports and activities. As a result, I established a program called “AthletiKids,” which develops fundamental physical literacy that enables participants to be active for life. The focus of the AthletiKids program is to develop essential athletics skills that can be applied to many other sports and activities. AthletiKids is activities based, with games, exercises and circuits, and designed to follow “Active Start,” "FUNdamental," and “Learn to Train” stages of Canada’s LTAD Model. AthletiKids incorporates elements of the AMA Youth Run Club and Athletics Canada’s Run Jump Throw Wheel into its programming by teaching the basics of running form, pacing, endurance training, throwing, and jumping with an emphasis on a fun, non-competitive environment. AthletiKids and the AMA YRC form part of Westglen’s Healthy Active School initiative, which is offered in an environment that strongly aligns with the inclusive learning that occurs in the classrooms. Over one third of all students in grades 1-6 (and even some Kindergarten students) have been involved each year.
The short-term benefits of involvement in programs such as AthletiKids and the AMA YRC are plain to see. Anecdotal reports from teachers have noted that the students who are involved in before-school physical activity tend to be more attentive in class at the beginning of the school day. Moreover, we have found that, despite initial fears that participants would tire toward the end of the day, students who participate are more focused throughout the day. The notion that before-school exercise results in improved concentration levels among child participants is also supported by the research of Neils Egelund and his colleagues in Denmark and (especially for children with ADHD) by Betsy Hoza and her colleagues in the US.
Since the AthletiKids and AMA YRC programs have only been running for seven and three years respectively, the longer-term benefits are as yet unclear. However, it is safe to say that by being provided with the opportunity to explore and experience physical literacy (just as they are taught math, reading, and writing), participants will be in a good position to enjoy the considerable benefits of lifelong physical activity.