Holding a ball in front of him, five-year-old Shane William Mohammed Shazlan dives into the pool head first, his legs kicking to help him get to the bottom of the pool. The ball pops up and Shane follows, a few seconds later laughing as he looks around for it.
“I love to swim,” says the tanned boy a while later as he takes a breather, hanging on to the side of the pool.
Within minutes, he’s back chasing after the ball.
Though he only started swimming lessons earlier this year – he mastered the free-style after just two months – Shane is no stranger to the pool as he’s been going into the water with his mother, Dr Christine Fletcher, since he was two months old.
Swimming isn’t the only activity Shane enjoys. He hikes, plays football, tennis and learns gymnastics and the Brazilian martial arts Capoeira too.
“Shane loves being outdoors.
"Even now, during the school holidays, he hates being cooped up inside. After watching a cartoon on TV, he’ll ask if we can go swimming. We’re lucky we live in a condo where there is a pool downstairs,” says Fletcher, a zoologist and researcher at the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM).
Shane, as it turns out, may be the exception to the rule where Malaysian children are concerned. Numerous studies show that Malaysian children aren’t active, let alone getting enough exercise.The 2016 Active Healthy Kids report card, a study conducted by the Active Healthy Kids Global Alliance in 38 countries, finds that Malaysian children are largely inactive and spend more time on devices (more than two hours a day) than on sports and outdoor activities.
Malaysia’s report card score was a dismal “D” (on a scale of A to F, where A is excellent and F is fail). The study measured activity based on nine indicators: overall physical activity, organised sport participation, active play, active transportation (walking or cycling to school, etc), sedentary behaviour, family and peers, school, community and the built environment and also government strategies and investments.
Only 22.8% of secondary students self-reported that they were physically active for a total of at least 60 minutes per day on five or more days per week.
Also, most children displayed extremely low compliance with dietary recommendations – not enough vegetables, too much sweet and unhealthy food.
These findings tie in with the National Health and Morbidity Survey 2011 which found that almost 500,000 Malaysian children are obese. Experts warn that childhood obesity is likely to continue into adulthood and this is evident in the 2015 findings in the same survey where about 30% of Malaysians above the age of 18 are categorised as overweight and another 17.7%, obese. This is a sharp rise from the 4.4% of Malaysians who were classified as obese in 1996. The reasons? Lack of exercise, a poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle.
Parent Mohd Zaki Tumpang Maarof is determined to get his three children moving. When he heard about the Milo Champions Clinic for children aged seven to 11 earlier this year, he signed on two of his three children – Muhammad Hariz, nine, and Zara Alisha, seven – in the futsal clinics without hesitation.
“Children these days ... they have very short attention spans and they lack discipline. Apart from learning the sport, I wanted them to learn discipline that comes with sports. Also, my daughter is a little overweight and I want her to start getting active and become interested in sports,” says Mohd Zaki.
The result, after just eight sessions on the futsal court, have been astounding, reports the pleased father.
“They not only play the game better, they are also more disciplined at home and have more respect for others. They get up earlier in the mornings and are more alert in school and at home,” he says.
For Fletcher, sports and outdoor activities are crucial in ensuring that Shane becomes a well-rounded individual.
“During weekends, Shane doesn’t touch his academic (books). He focuses on school from Monday to Friday already; weekends are about nurturing his other skills such as discovery and curiosity. Because of the nature of my work, I started taking Shane into the forest when he was about five months old where he’d play with leaves and stones. He hikes now and is really very comfortable in the forest.
“On our trips, he learns about nature, plants and animals and about life. Like how he once saw an ant eating a beetle and that started a discussion about science and life. These are real lessons he wouldn’t be able to get in a classroom,” she says.
And Fletcher doesn’t give Shane a smart device to play with. Although he is curious about what his friends are doing on their gadgets, he isn’t all that interested because he does not use them. Try keeping him from his many activities though and he might be miserable, says his mother.
“He started football when he was two. Of course, at that age he didn’t learn drills; he learnt what the ball can do and what he can do with the ball.
He has been going for football clinics every week since then and has learnt co-ordination and strategy. He already knows that he can’t score a goal on his own ... that he has to pass the ball to his friend and defend. You don’t learn these skills in school.
“Swimming is a life skill which we think is important for him to have. We sent him to gymnastics because he was tumbling around in the house and we wanted him to be safe. If he’s going to fall, he should know how to land properly. And Capoeira ... well, bullying is something I worry about especially because Shane is very small for his age. I want him to learn how to deal with bullies ... not to fight them but to defend himself, firstly with words and with his self-confidence. Tennis was something he wanted to do,” explains Fletcher.
National futsal coach Chiew Chun Yong asserts that sport develops skills which children need even off the pitch.
“It shapes their attitude and their habits. They learn to play with others, not to give up easily, discipline and respect. This is the culture in sport and these are skills we need to impart when children are young and not when they are older,” says Chiew who was the head futsal coach at the Milo Champions Clinics that recently concluded.
Chiew says many parents have told him of the positive changes in their children’s behaviour at home even after just a few weeks of training at the clinics.
“These are not small changes. They take the discipline they learn on the pitch back home and parents report drastic changes in their attitudes and behaviour,” says Chiew.
Zuraidah Abu Hassan is one such parent who is pleased to see positive changes in her nine-year-old daughter Nur Hana Afina Noor Hisham who went for the netball clinics.
“Hana was very argumentative and she was hooked on TV. But she listens more now and is a lot more disciplined. She looked forward to coming for the clinics and playing with the friends she made on the court and she wants to come again next year,” says Zuraidah, who is determined to foster her child’s interest in netball henceforth.
Active Parents, Active Children
Getting children to be active starts at home. Parents need to not only schedule time for children to play outside but also set aside their own time to shuttle their little ones to games and activities, which in many urban areas can be a distance away from home.
“After a hectic week at work, it is much easier to hand them the tablet, which they enjoy and are quick to master,” admits Geetha Sundaram. “But when I noticed that my son was more comfortable with his iPad then with other children at a party a couple of years ago, I realised I had to reduce his attachment to his gadgets and get him involved in group activities.”
She enrolled Dharan Raj, then seven, in a football club in their neighbourhood in Petaling Jaya where children spend almost half the day every weekend training with their peers under the guidance of parents who act as coaches.
“He plays every Saturday and Sunday, which means that either my husband or I have to be with him at the field. It takes a lot of sacrifice but the benefits were almost instantaneous.
“The first couple of weeks, we had to make him go but once he made friends and learnt how to play the game, he started enjoying himself. Now he looks forward to his weekends because he gets to play with his friends. He comes back hungry and tired and hardly has the energy to be on his iPad,” says Geetha.
Fletcher too admits that it takes sacrifice and discipline on their part to get Shane to his various activities.
“We have to battle traffic to get him to his activities which are sometimes on the other side of town. And sometimes, we have to do things we don’t enjoy ... swimming isn’t really my thing but I try to get in the pool with him as much as possible because it’s something he enjoys. It’s a lot of sacrifices but in the end, all I want is a healthy and happy kid,” she says.