Although some parents would argue that it feels as though their children never sit still, South Africa is actually struggling to meet the right standards of physical activity for children, which is evident in our rising child obesity rates. The recently published Healthy Active Kids South Africa (HAKSA) 2018 Report Card assigned South African children an overall grade of C for physical activity. One of the key areas where physical activity can be improved is through physical education (PE) programmes in schools.
The HAKSA report gave PE in school curriculums a grade of D-. But rather than waiting for government to be the exclusive avenue for improving this area of the curriculum, educational institutions themselves can get the ball rolling. Training institutions like the Embury Institute for Higher Education have identified the gap in policy implementation of PE and are working to improve its students’ perceptions and knowledge about PE and PE training. Encouraging schools and educators to prioritise PE begins with better general training on health and the importance of healthy lifestyle choices. With training institutions helping cultivate this understanding, educators coming out of PE-prioritising and health-positive institutes can have a progressive effect on the implementation of PE programmes in the schools where they work.
South Africa is a remarkably innovative country, and schools are one of the best places to apply innovation. Often, educators or schools feel that they’re unable to implement PE due to a lack of equipment or sporting resources. This shouldn’t be a barrier to helping children get moving. PE or physical activity does not necessarily require fancy resources – it could be as simple as making one’s own equipment from consumable packing, such as filling an empty soft drink bottle with beads or rice to create a shaker, which children can shake and move around with.
And, of course, government does have a role to play. In a study of 12 countries, South Africa had the greatest percentage of learners (32%) who were not participating in PE at school. There seems to be no clear evidence of progress in the prioritisation of PE in the school curriculum or school environment at a national level. More funding from government is required to correct this and improve knowledge on the importance of being healthy, especially for educators who are already in the system. Education conferences often include extensive discussions on the importance of children being active, but actual implementation of these expressed values requires money and a focused effort.
When prioritising PE, education departments and training institutions need to emphasise the importance of getting parents and caregivers involved to help promote active behaviour. If educators are encouraging learners to be healthy at a school level, but their parents don’t promote a healthy lifestyle at home, it will be harder to improve the standards of physical activity in South African children.
Education is a mighty tool for improving the lives and prospects of children. The HAKSA report says that “there is overwhelming international evidence that physical activity and physical education in schools is positively associated with academic achievement.” This means that all parties involved in the education landscape of South Africa, including government, individual schools, principals, educators, parents and training institutes can play their part in amplifying the importance of PE and helping to effectively implement it in schools.
Michael Mthethwa is a Physical Education Specialist Lecturer at the Embury Institute for Higher Education, Musgrave Campus.