How do children grow up healthy?

Interview with Prof. Dr Swantje Scharenberg - Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Federal Institute for Sports Science and Sports for Children and Adolescents (German abbreviation FoSS).

How do children grow up healthy?

Whether we grow up healthy or not is decided long before we are born, that is to say at a prenatal stage. As we already know from numerous studies, the lifestyle and respective activities of parents are directly passed on to the nascent life through the cardiovascular system. That is how, for instance, obese parents might cause genetic dispositions among their children. Based on these findings, our approach should initially be focused on the adults’ attitude towards sports, physical exercise and their eating habits, if our aim is to help promoting health, in particular, that of children. To achieve this, it is important to create motivating movement offers, which make a health-enhancing behaviour become routine in the everyday life of children without a moralising undertone. The piano staircase of the Stockholm metro, for instance, can thus be seen as a sonorous example. Each and every one can decide for themselves to either take the lift or to create their own tonal patterns by taking the stairs, or to even create music jointly with others. Another good example is the new building of the German Olympic Sports Confederation (Deutscher Olympischer Sportbund) where the attention is drawn to the fact that climbing stairs burns calories. This approach can also be found in many hotels, where stairways are meanwhile designed in a sophisticated and inviting way, so it seems almost inevitable to take the stairs instead of using the lift.

But does that mean that more movement offerings should be provided in public spaces? The answer to this question is that everyone is different. Maybe it simply needs a wide range of awareness-raising measures to promote a change in attitude of the whole family. In any case, adults should always be aware of their role model function.


Playground@Landscape: How could we motivate our children to do more sports? To become physically active? How could we get them going?

Prof. Dr Swantje Scharenberg: Your question addresses especially the responsibility of adults and, in particular, of the different political functionaries. Usually adolescents discover the world by individual and self-regulated physical activities, as Prof. Dr Renate Zimmer refers to in several pedagogic publications. Adults should see themselves as those who enable their children to realise this process and give their children enough time to try themselves out. Usually, children always have a lot of good ideas to be physically active, such as their dedication to play devices in the pram could also be seen as a measure of training their strength and coordination skills. It was in the 1980s when it was of interest at which time a child should start doing sports. However, your question about how the children could be motivated to practise sports includes both the socio-spatial development in recent years and the present understanding of sports, which you properly summarised as a triad of sports, physical activity and energy. According to the findings of the long-term MoMo study (motor fitness module) about the motor skills of children, that is to say about their endurance, strength, mobility, speed and coordination skills, the basic physical and sporty characteristics of adolescents have rather worsened, despite several incentive programmes. The recent results of the MoMo study even show that only one third of the children in Germany fulfil the minimum time of daily exercise which - from a health perspective - should be at least 60 minutes throughout the day.

All approaches towards more energy, physical activity and sports – strictly speaking, these terms are built up hierarchically - should see the modern childhood as an opportunity to create colourful child-appropriate ideas which are linked with positive experiences for everybody involved. However, it is only personal experience that brings about a long-term change in behaviour. In recent years the trend under the heading "we come to you!" has become increasingly popular. So instead of waiting for the children to use the swing at the playground, use their bikes or pedal scooters to get there or exercise regularly at the sports club, a simpler way has been chosen, that is to say the offer comes to the children by providing movement offerings, the so-called "community sports", directly at the day care centre – where motivation towards more exercise is created by the specific architectural design –,  in the districts, where motivation is to be achieved through fitness devices which can be used by people of all age groups –, and at schools where, for instance, the school yard is designed in an activity-promoting way. When planning the design, it is important to provide colourful devices with a wide range of using options for children, so that they remain attractive to them at all ages and development levels, which is indeed not an easy task at all.

The optimum solution would hence be a fitness course in the immediate surroundings which is attractive to all age groups. Because the motivation to practise sports can be boosted by shared experience. That is why the well-hidden fitness trail in the forest or the fitness trail integrated into the natural space as they were known in the 1970s, should be complemented by visible fitness offerings in the inner city. When, as recently in the City of Mainz, the city landscape is embellished by new benches, it would be useful to add information boards which indicate how the new street furniture can be converted into fitness benches and thus initiate a change in meaning regarding the ordinary use of such seating furniture as, in particular, prolonged sitting – starting in early childhood – has counterproductive effects whereas the so-called "functional training" approach (FT in short) with its individual exercises provides a wide range of ideas and incentives for physical activities which are also very suited to being carried out outside by using benches. Animal moves emulated by humans, can also be seen as FT copied from animals, and are fine with children.

During our biennial conferences we often hear that the participants are grateful for any new suggestions about how to use the fitness devices.  Often it is only during advanced trainings when they recognise the flexible potential of the devices which had up to then been unknown to them. During the International German Gymnastics Festival in Berlin in 2017, for instance, I offered a workshop on the subject of "child-oriented use of fitness devices" where, inter alia, I introduced the various usage options of the so-called Lüneburger Stegel, a gymnastics apparatus forgotten and collecting dust in most equipment rooms. One of the participants mentioned that a manual for different using options was available on the Internet. Obviously, there is an increasing demand for such practical instructions. But why? Is it because the creativity of trainers, educators and teachers is limited because the children might get injured, which could lead to legal consequences? Do adults not want or are they no longer able to demonstrate exercises and, as a consequence, keep children from gaining their own movement experience? It would, however, be very useful, particularly for the manufacturers of sports equipment, to identify the reasons.


Playground@Landscape: You have just mentioned that there are some movement elements adults are no longer able to perform. Do you think, we are losing part of our movement skills?

Prof. Dr Swantje Scharenberg: Yes, indeed. The main problem is that we do not have enough time to do exercises and in order to feel reassured, we tend to convert our everyday activities into movement time. Stair climbing, for instance, might substitute the morning exercise and is then used as an excuse for driving to the supermarket rather than going shopping on foot. We succumb to being controlled externally instead of staying active and mobile on our own. Thus, knee pain and back trouble are the result. Hence, due to the lack of training, it becomes increasingly difficult to carry out everyday movements and we frequently tumble and fall down. We have less confidence in our own capabilities. In addition, it is a fact that from birth onwards we get continuously stiffer and less mobile and that we lose strength when we get older, unless we train our strength and endurance. That is to say, although we theoretically know the optimum movement sequences, we are not able to perform them due to our reduced physical capacities. As a result, we become desperate and therefore entirely refrain from doing exercise.

Hence, the idea is to reactivate the movement memory and to improve the quality of everyday movements through targeted muscle building, to monitor ourselves carefully and to be aware of any sign of progress in order to feel psychologically strengthened and thus muster up the courage to perform specific movements and thus regain the risk expertise we seem to have lost. Such an exercise programme can be carried out either under instruction or independently. And also, looking for an appropriate "playground" on one's own initiative can be quite rewarding.



I would now like to move on to the topic of school sports. What are the opportunities for prevention and growing up healthily in this context?

Prof. Dr. Swantje Scharenberg:

In general, it can be said that as a result of the high number of all-day schools of various formats, the attendance time at schools has increased. However, this must in no way imply longer periods of sitting. School sports is more than just sports lessons at school. The majority of working groups offered at all-day schools are focused on sport programmes, that is to say school sports programmes which in the literal sense means doing sports at school. In Pforzheim, for instance, the German golden city, where unfortunately the rate of unemployed and criminals under 18 is rather high, an exemplary project called „sport helps!“ has been launched already years ago in which both the municipality, municipal schools and the sports youth are involved. Outside school hours, the local schools open their doors for different sports and movement activities. Within the framework of this programme, the regional sports associations offer activities such as oriental dance, combat sports, amateur football leagues or Capoeira which have been well-accepted and to some extent even been organised by the youngsters themselves. Thus, it would be desirable if they had the opportunity to include their favourite sports during the school sports lessons, too. Because it is in particular the participatory processes which are extremely motivating and create interest among the students. Hence, the image of school as such has improved considerably in the young people’s minds. Since the 18th century we know that light, fresh air and sun are decisive factors for the state of our health and the capacity to absorb vitamin D. That is why at some schools outdoor classes are offered in view of the positive effect of light and sun on the bone structure. Although maths lessons held outside imply special conditions for both teachers and pupils outside of their regular comfort zone, they have sustainable positive effects on the overall wellbeing of everybody involved. However, it depends on the design of the school grounds and the possible use of small-size equipment whether this type of teaching is feasible. Nevertheless, school sports and sports lessons as such can always be offered outside and not just after the sports hall has been locked for a fairly long period of time due to hygienic regulations as it recently has been the case in Lower Saxony.


Playground@Landscape: Why do sports scientists these days find that health education is of utmost importance?

Prof. Dr. Swantje Scharenberg:  Health education is an issue of traditional relevance which can be traced back to Ancient Greece. In those days, it was a given aim to achieve a fit, healthy and beautiful (male) body by "gymnastics" and athletics. The "grandfather of gymnastics" Johann GutsMuths adopted these ideas, as did the philanthropists (friends of mankind) of the time at an overall level. In the 19th century, a further evolution of movement, gymnastics, games and sports was achieved in Sweden through so-called curative gymnastics. In addition, both the wall bars, the medicine ball and the Swedish exercising bench are devices from the 19th century, which experience a real renaissance in the recreational sports sector, and not just there. Even younger people are doing "recreational sports" by practising Calisthenics, which is a special type of strength training that can be practised outdoors at horizontal bars or, in the absence of outdoor fitness parks, at children's playgrounds. However, the term “recreational sports” does not fit with the current youth language and is thus not associated with health by the young generation whereas the sports scientists analyse the components of calisthenics as follows: regarding the body contouring procedure, for those who practise calisthenics this type of sports has cult potential. With their youtube videos they address those who were born after 1990 and for whom the media use is part of their daily life, that is to say the so-called generation of digital natives. It is them who "post" a new urban movement culture, share their experiences at an international level and promote in an almost unnoticed manner outdoor fitness devices which are suitable for power training. The use of media and sports may interact in a mutually supportive way as was clearly demonstrated by “Pokemon go”. In order to inspire children and youngsters to exercise and adopt a healthy lifestyle, the sports scientists will basically have to function as trend scouts for this generation and, in a further step, create offerings which are based on the interests of young people. For example, the further education "from geocaching to athletics" focuses on smart connections between media usage and sport disciplines. Outdoor devices with QR-codes, which show the different possibilities of using them, are another good example of "meeting" the young generation's needs. 

Those apps which are offered inter alia by sporting goods manufacturers, usually combine the pedometers and heart rate monitors of the early years with newer products and are thus a good marketing strategy which is always focused on the best possible way to reach the target group.

It may be useful to equip our cities with weatherproof horizontal and parallel bars made of stainless steel, as it is already the case along the lagoon's cycle path in Chioggia/Italy, to shape the fit body of the 21st century, the same way like once in Antiquity.

Without doubt, the sensitivity for growing up healthily and for student and workplace health promotion has increased considerably. While the Ahorn Sports Park at the company site of Nixdorf Computer AG in the German city of Paderborn, built for the company's sports groups, was derided by many, there is now, 40 years later, a consensus that active schools whose concept usually goes well beyond just practising sports during school or work breaks, raise work productivity and help to preserve health. The physical sufferings of forestry workers in the Göttingen area, for instance, who had long sick leaves due to their back problems eased after a supervised training conducted over several weeks, while at the same time their self-effectiveness experienced a decisive boost. According to the so-called German "HaBe" study (focusing on posture and mobility) conducted by the Technical University of Karlsruhe it was found that, for instance, heavy school satchels cause postural defects in children. However, systematic back-strengthening exercises have led to sustainable positive results in this crucial field of physical development. So this gives rise to the question of whether school yards and outdoor fitness parks could probably help solve the problem of "back trouble" by providing devices of highly stimulating character.


In short, for sports scientists it is important to enter into constructive dialogue with decision-makers about the results of applied research and to share their scientific knowledge with them in order to develop and implement joint projects.



The interview was held by Thomas R. Müller (Playground + Landscape Verlag GmbH)


Photo:Jens Hauth (Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (KIT) / Forschungszentrum für den Schulsport und den Sport von Kindern und Jugendlichen (FoSS))


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