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Lazy kids or bad planning: why won't Australian kids get off their butts?

By Peter West - posted Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Research by Brendon Hyndman has found that Australian kids are some of the least physically active in the world. Let's see why this is so.

Dads-missing in action

Our dads took us to see the football, or took us to see Don Bradman play cricket. Once the great man actually patted me on the head. Our dads taught us to swim and bowl a ball. Badly, in my case. But dads are missing in today's families, in many ways. We have families without men, and men without families. In most cases, dads are trying to stay relevant and feel useful. Many dads are separated or divorced, and struggle to act as the stern dads we once had. Thus dads are challenged and stressed, and can't look at their health needs or their kids'. They give in to kids : you can see the divorced dads taking the kids to eat junk food with heaps of chips washed down with sugary drinks.

Unhelpful images of men.



When ABC TV journalists talk about health issues, they turn straight away to women. Sunday papers are crammed with articles about women's health, with the odd piece about lean, muscled young men. Not much there that helps the average bloke stay healthy and get his kids playing sport. Women in TV ads and TV shows explain things to men and tell them how to manage relationships. Too often, men are seen as fools and clowns.They are discussed as problems needing to be curtailed, constrained and watched suspiciously. And thus one of the keys to kids' sporting interest and skill level has been badly weakened. Overall, most men I know are very wary of showing interest in kids they see on the street, with the ever-present threat of accusation. We have all had to get used to Working with Children checks at our churches and schools. Let's hope they do some good.

Governments don't care.

Governments care little about the health of kids. Darkest New South Wales has a lazy government. (Parliament has already begun its Christmas- New Year break and won't resume for months). Policy-makers are heavily influenced by property developers, sports impresarios and bean counters. We waste billions demolishing stadiums that really only needed minor repairs. Or setting up a toy light rail whose cost has doubled to what was supposedly estimated and which will slow down people rushing to and from work. Or moving the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta. Governments have their priorities, but not in public education and health.

Room to move - for some

Then we waste money by selling off State schools and school land. More than twenty thousand public properties have been sold off in New South Wales alone. The same pattern may well apply in other States. We flog off our common wealth for a few measly dollars, when property is increasing in value most of the time. We now have a trend towards high-rise schools. And so the space for kids to move shrinks and shrinks. Suddenly we've realised that putting more and more temporary classrooms on playgrounds in State schools is reducing the land on which kids can move, jump, leap around, or play organised sport. But of course, as middle class people move to private schools, we lose powerful voices who could support public schools.

Lucky kids are in schools that have large amounts of land. Smart managers hold onto property, and build prudently. (Never mind that Rudd and Gillard wasted millions building foolishly small halls in New South Wales and Victorian State schools.) Which schools have the best land and sports facilities? Very often, these are the wealthiest private schools which often have private swimming pools, up to date gyms, large grassy ovals, basketball courts and an array of well-paid sports coaches. A search of sports job ads makes this clear.

What's happened to teachers?

And who has the kids many days a year? Teachers. Teaching has become the domain of many middle-aged, middle class people, mainly females. The proportion of men in State primary schools drops again and again, amid suggestions that the average school lunch-room is buzzing with chatter about maternity leave, births and marriages. Men don't feel included- they're like a rooster in the hen-house. Arguably, men tend to be more active and sport-keen, at least when they are young. As if fit, energetic young people would be attracted to teaching these days, with so many of them attracted by challenging jobs in IT, fitness and the military!

It's clear that our teaching force is dispirited, poorly paid, over-scrutinised, demoralised and beset by bureaucratic paper-chasers. No point in blaming the teachers. Good teachers are being burnt out and leaving teaching all the time, with young men among the fastest to leave for more rewarding jobs.


The loss of practicality.

When I began teaching, teaching was a ladder for working people to get into the middle class. It has become a cash cow for universities and a place for making sure we give proper attention to loud interest groups. "We need more emphasis on ...." X and Y and Z and so on. teachers have courses on the latest fashions and fancies. Gender equity, gifted and talented, Aboriginal education, multicultural perspectives… Admittedly, some of them are important . But good physical exercise is not emphasised. In any case, students spend many hours a week working in numerous part-time jobs merely to stay alive.

In days long gone, students had a dem lesson once a week in a dedicated demonstration school whose teachers were specially selected for good teaching methods. Demonstration schools no doubt were expensive and have disappeared. Once student teachers trained for two or three years and worked hard in long school terms with few hours free of activity. But student teaching hours have been reduced. Many useful lessons have been lost in the process, among them the many ways in which physical activity can take place.

After two years of training, teachers once earned money. Today after four years of preparation, they start ' teacher development' ,expensive and never-ending. Another gravy train for consultants (it's a job I've done at times). Another thing that might discourage young, working class men and women from feeling respected and admired.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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