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Let’s gamify being active at schools



Some doctors have said Pokémon GO could be the answer to obesity. In some ways, it may be an understatement. Although it is a far stretch to say that a single augmented reality game on a smart-phone will solve the problem of people being inactive, but it goes a long way to highlight the power of fun and play. The unintended consequence of this game being that the “computer nerd” image of sitting at your desk is being turned into one of physical activity outdoors. And in this, every step counts.

But this is one small part of a much larger issue. In western societies we have witnessed obesity, especially among children, take hold at an unrelenting pace. It has even been dubbed to be of epidemic nature: the comforting sedentary lifestyle combined with bad diets. But technology, combined with public health care and educational policy can change that. And we should seize the moment.

In Europe, we are coming to realize that due to an ageing population our current welfare model is not sustainable. There is an increasing demand for healthcare, pressuring our public budgets more than ever. So if we continue organising our society without rethinking welfare in a revolutionary way, the burden of sustaining that public investment will increasingly fall on people working and paying taxes, which will be fewer compared to retirees.

So it is not a question of keeping people healthy so they can work, especially young people. However, it is about turning our health care model to be truly preventative. In the kin of “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”. Being active, and starting that at a young age, is thus the best investment we can make as individuals or as a society in our wellbeing.

But when and how to start making the change, moving from extinguishing fires to preventing them? Well, why don’t we start by integrating health technology and being active through making it fun at our schools?

As a kid I was not that fit and always felt trepid about going to physical education class; it did not just feel like an obligation, but a source of anxiety. It felt so because I received no help to learn how to do better for myself or collaboratively. It was all about a race against a standard decided somewhere in a ministry cabinet. To earn the best grade, there was a standard for how fast I should run, how far I should jump or how many crunches I should do in a minute. And it was about competition, which in sports I did not care for.

Just imagine what this can do to mental health of young people? But that was nobody’s concern as the goal was not self-improvement. Yet, I was not alone – this standard based system is common in the Estonian educational system. Later I also learned that our country is not alone: it is a widespread problem in our schools all over Europe.

But opportunities for gamification of physical exercise could make it easier to change. The new world of the smart phone and Internet offers us the opportunity to rethink both the physical space at schools as well as the pedagogy of physical education.

First of all, we should ban outright grading in physical education, as it fails in being the right incentive. Finding joy in physical activity should be the aim. Schools should help here, but grading based on one-size-fits-all model is counterproductive. Secondly, we should not rely on individual classes alone, but integrate active living into how children interact in their free time and at classes.

Part of that could be achieved through use of health trackers and applications that make activity fun; from simple things like counting your steps to games like Pokémon GO. Another part of that could be achieved by making sure physical education is something each teacher plays part in – why not stretch just before an important algebra test? Mind and body together, remember?

On top of that, the canteens and classes also play a role. Learning about food and eating, knowing what is good for you and what is not, is as essential as activity. Making sure we have quality, delicious and well-balanced food in our school canteens will be an investment our future finance ministers will be grateful for as it will help prevent a lot of problems.

Of course, all of this requires significant investment in public funding and time, training of teachers and rethinking and adjusting our schools to offer an attractive physical space for being active for all. Equally so, we must develop a welcoming mindset that sees each student as their own person, not a standard to be shaped. Given our huge public health care challenge, this is more urgent than ever.

Physical education must be something kids leave school thinking, wow, that was fun. And yet unfortunately today, this is not the case as there is either too much of a focus on standardised testing of basic physical exercise, or focus on competition alone, either among peers in class or more professionally outside of school.


I am not saying competition in sports is a bad thing, but it can be if done wrong, and unfortunately we are doing it wrong. Let’s challenge that and imagine a better school, a supportive school for physical activity, on a daily basis. And it has never been easier to achieve than now because of technology.

Allan Päll

Secretary General

European Youth Forum AISBL

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