Movement and ergonomics
Our ergonomic products are intended to accompany children on their way to school and to leisure activities and to aid them in their development. Part of this is that they remain firmly in place as the children move and can be individually adjusted so as to minimize the strain on muscles, bones and joints even when they are full of school books. The strain can also be reduced by a healthy and active lifestyle – because this has a major impact on fitness and therefore on the development of the body posture and a healthy back which is better able to bear a heavier weight. We interviewed Dr Dieter Breithecker to find out why exercise is so important for children, to ask how parents can best support the development of their children, and to talk about the factors which should be taken into account in day-to-day school life. Dr Dieter Breithecker is a sport and exercise scientist, author, accredited lecturer and speaker on preventive health and back therapy training, and he heads up the Bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft für Haltungs- und Bewegungsförderung e.V. federal association for the promotion of correct posture and physical exercise. 1. Why is exercise so important and why do you call it the basis for the development of the brain? Movement is the motor which drives child development. Children are born with an innate need to climb, jump, swing, balance, play ball or just to move about and not be able to sit still. The urge to move is therefore part of human nature, encouraging exercise in a natural and healthy way and ultimately promoting the development of the child. The basic activities already mentioned and just exploring the world with others through play are initially more important than sports and form the basis for the development of lasting physical and mental health. As soon as children's muscles are active, messenger molecules are continuously released (e.g. proteins, hormones) which have a positive influence on the metabolism in the whole body. They are also important for the regeneration and connection of nerve cells in the brain. 2. You speak of the inertia trap or couch potato syndrome afflicting our children these days. What exactly do you mean by this? Children are caught in the inertia trap if they spend several hours a day sitting down instead of moving around and doing things with others. Studies show that, on average, children spend up to nine hours a day sitting down these days. And the blame for this state of affairs cannot be laid solely at the door of school and homework. The unquestioning use of games consoles, smartphones, televisions and such like is an underestimated risk factor. The sedentary lifestyle encouraged by this inactivity has brought about a situation where the members of the younger generation are forecast a lower life expectancy than their parents. 3. How can parents best support the development of their children? It is really important for parents to lead by example but it also helps if they are interested in what children really need for their development. Admittedly, the latter is not entirely easy because there is an endless stream of well-intentioned advice these days but also a vast number of myths. One key factor is that they do not organize the child's day down to the very last minute. Children need time and space for unstructured play and for their own activities with others. They want to initiate their own activities instead of having them dictated by others. Parents should think back to their own childhood and remember all the things they experienced with friends when they were left to their own devices. 4. How nurturing is it acceptable for parents to be? Unfortunately parental care, however well-meaning, is often a hindrance to physical action and therefore also puts the brakes on development. Children are the real experts when it comes to their own development. When children organize activities themselves, there must be an emotional response associated with the things they enjoy. The enjoyment of play also lies in the risk attached to it. Important as it is, however, risk-taking and the daring deeds associated with it do not always sit easily with the safety-conscious mindset of adults. It may sound controversial to say this to parents but a good analogy would be to "put out a safety net but let your children walk the wire!" 5. "Having confidence in children means believing that they are capable of many things." What role do confidence and praise play in encouraging physical activity? Both are fundamental to early learning and development. Having confidence in children means helping them to move and explore the world around them independently without constantly intervening in an overcautious manner. Children do not want to walk on "level pathways" but look for "barriers" which they can overcome. Then they have the feeling that they have accomplished something. The fitting response here is "honest praise" because it chimes with the subjective sense of achievement. 6. We make sense of something through the senses – why are sight and insight, touch and being in touch so closely related, forming a link between thought and deed As children grow up and enter adolescence, their development is based on evolutionary and physiological principles. Children have to experience things first-hand in order to gain an intellectual grasp of them. By gathering many different kinds of experiences, children can physically embrace the everyday choices on offer to them before they embrace them with their minds. In other words, concrete experiences in the early years form the basis for abstract thinking in later years. 7. When children start school, the parents take a step back, and school takes control of a large part of the day. What dangers do you see in this with regard to child development? I would not describe it as a danger but as an opportunity. After all, the children will be in the hands of qualified teachers who are also trained in the theory of physical education. Elementary schools in particular are introducing programs to encourage physical activity in response to the situation of inactivity affecting our society in general and children in particular. Parents should obtain information on the drive for active, healthy schools like the "Bewegte Schule" initiative, supporting such initiatives and, where necessary, calling for them to be introduced. 8. What aspects of the school day should parents and teachers be focusing on and what improvements can they make to tackle the "plight" of the sedentary nature of school life? It is a challenge for elementary schoolers to sit still for just five minutes. Children respond in a very autonomous way, rocking back on their chairs, shuffling around restlessly or adopting different sitting postures. This is all fairly typical. A break from sitting should also be introduced as often as possible. Standing at high desks, sitting on the floor on special mats, and building activity into lessons are all worthwhile methods and ways of organizing the teaching day which meet the children's need for movement and are therefore good for their health and for the way in which they learn. When purchasing school furniture, it is essential to make sure that it can be adapted to the different proportions of growing children and that the seats are flexible, ideally with the facility for three-dimensional adjustment. 9. What is behind the idea of "Bewegtes Lernen" or active learning? Active learning means learning with having to sit bolt upright on a chair for hours in a state of mental fatigue – it is a way of teaching which involves the pupils and actively engages them in the learning process. Project work, group work, independent study, open learning, and following a weekly work plan are all teaching methods and forms of organization in which the body, mind and emotions are interacting with each other, thereby allowing a more effective approach to learning. 10. What is the difference in your opinion between exercise and sport? The terms are often used synonymously. Exercise is more than sport, however, from a health point of view. Sport in the narrower sense tends to be an organized activity of a particular intensity at a specific time and place in pursuit of a specified intention, such as enhancing performance and improving technique in relation to physical functions. Exercise, by contrast, is often spontaneous and happens on impulse, mainly when people become aware of the many possible ways of being physically active in their everyday lives and make active use of them for their own good and for their health – such as taking the staircase instead of using the escalator. Exercise is based on a need to explore and conquer the world around us in a proactive hands-on way. This is particularly pronounced in children and therefore contributes quite naturally to educational development and good health. 11. You are openly critical of the playgrounds in Germany in various publications. Why? The majority of playgrounds – and this does not include the sandpits for the very young – are run-down and neglected. That is to say, their acceptance among children is at a sustained low. One fundamental reason is that they are designed by adults with precious little understanding of the needs of children. "Excessive safeguards", "insufficient challenge and lack of motivation", "aesthetic" and "standardized" are just some of the factors which restrict free and spontaneous play. This may be a harsh verdict but these are the facts of the matter. Nobody would dispute that playgrounds have to be safe but they also have to be "tempting" places for children and it must be "worth the trouble" for children to go and play there. Therefore it is unsatisfactory if the design process simply involves abiding by a set of standards without bringing professional pedagogic concerns to the table, such as the educational value of play and movement. Every playground design needs a sensible balance between calculable risk and physiological benefit in order to foster child development. 12. You are in a position to judge that with your expert knowledge – but it is difficult for parents to assess whether playgrounds and play equipment or indeed products like school bags and desks are good for healthy development. How can parents get information? It is not the parents but the experts who are responsible for the safety of playgrounds. These should be competent people who know how to make sure that playgrounds are interesting and inspiring places for children which gain their acceptance. This calls for more expertise than merely interpreting the playground health & safety standards. Parents can inform themselves online for example. We would like to thank Dr Dieter Breithecker for this interesting interview.