If you were to conduct a snap-poll of people anywhere in the world, asking them exactly where they think Australia ranks on the international Active Kids matrix, you’d be betting the house on them putting us somewhere near the lofty, and slightly sweaty, top of the poll, right?
Ours is a vast land of boundless plains and grassy sports fields, after all, and it's blessed by the kind of ever-pleasant weather that would turn even the palest of Poms a lurid shade of green with envy. So surely our kids are outside running around more than most others. That’s how we all grew up, after all.
Apparently not. It’s hard to believe, with our plentiful parks, sporting facilities, beaches and backyard swimming pools, but Aussie kids aren’t anywhere near as active as they should be. In fact, less than 20 per cent of children aged between five and 17 get the recommended 60 minutes of exercise each day.
So, back to the Active Kids matrix; the first major global study of its kind, published in 2016. Where do you honestly think Australia landed?
Did you guess 23rd out of the 38 countries studied, returning an overall score of D Minus? That puts us below even Hong Kong (which scored a flat D) - a stamp-sized country almost 7000 times smaller than our own, and one with less free space than your average peak-hour bus.
Our nearest neighbours, New Zealand, finished second only to Slovenia, returning an overall score of A on its report card - which could have something to do with the invincibility of their rugby union teams.
“Countries with the most active children and youth overall, including Slovenia, New Zealand and Zimbabwe, rely on very different approaches to get kids to move more,” says Dr. Mark Tremblay, Chair of the Active Healthy Kids Global Alliance.
“But what is consistent between all of them is that physical activity is driven by pervasive cultural norms – being active is not just a choice, but a way of life.”
A way of life. Kind of like it used to be in Australia.
Some experts point to a sharp drop-off in participation in junior sport as one reason our children aren’t as active as they could be. Australia’s junior sport participation levels peak when our kids are between nine and 11 years old, but then drop suddenly and sharply from there, continuing to plummet into adulthood.
The good news, though, is that there is a very easy solution. You know how when you pick your child up from school, every kid in the yard looks just about identical? Same shoes, same haircuts, same fidget spinner or Razor scooter or whatever else is the must-have item of that very nanosecond?
That is the power of social influence at work (don’t scoff, adults aren’t immune to it; remember "the Rachel” haircut?), and it’s what makes our children want to do what other children are doing, and vice versa.
While we know the power of social influence most for the must-have toys, sneakers or video games that appear on identical Christmas wish lists the country over, the same effect actually applies to exercise, too.
And so, given the known strength of collective enthusiasm among kids, there is surely no better way to build excitement for sport than to try your hand at being a team taxi, collecting other players and dropping them at training or a game, along with your own children.
A car like Kia’s recently updated eight-seater Carnival, for example, has all the space you could ever need for young players and their sporting kit (a whopping - and SUV-shaming - 960 litres of storage, even with all three rows of seating in place). Australia's best-selling eight-seater could have been custom-made for team-taxi duties, from the sliding rear doors (so you never have to worry about car-park dings) to the Apple CarPlay-equipped touchscreen ready to play that pump-up Spotify playlist (“Eye of the Tiger again, Dad?”).
A seven-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty means all those extra miles driving to and from games will be worry-free, and from just $42,490, you'll still be able to spring for those post-match ice-creams.
LEAD BY EXAMPLE
Research also shows that the easiest and most significant way to keep children engaged with sport is for one or both parents to be involved in a sporting club, be it as a player or as a volunteer. Australian Sports Commission research has found that two-thirds of kids who had at least one parent playing a sport also played themselves.
But if you’re concerned your old football jersey might now look so tight across the mid-section that it's slightly more transparent than cling film, then worry not - you don’t actually have to play the sport yourself, but rather help out with the team in any way you can. The study found almost 90 per cent of kids whose parents also volunteered at a sporting club continued playing themselves.
Even slicing the oranges, washing the jerseys, or even staffing the game-day BBQ can be enough to keep your children playing sport for longer.
“Put simply, more active adults are more likely to have more active kids,” says ASC spokesman Paul Fairweather. “There's not really that much you have to do, you just have to be involved with the club in some way, and the sports are there to help you with that.”
“You don't have to do much,” Fairweather says. “You could take a bigger role, like being a coach, but you could just help manage the team, or help with the uniforms.”
So, happier healthy kids for the cost of a bagful or sliced oranges or some extra time behind the wheel on a Saturday morning? Sounds like a pretty good deal to us.