We all expect children to be active, curious and challenging when it comes to the world in which they’re developing as human beings – but it’s no easy ask in a digitally-driven age when screen time can take priority over just about everything else and in which technology can appear a dominant force from infancy.

Physical activity and early childhood development though are key, with many learned voices warning we ignore their importance at our peril and, in the process, set the scene for a raft of physical and social issues in the years ahead. Not least of all, what has been described by some as a “childhood obesity timebomb”.

Tennis world number two Novak Djokovic set up a foundation in his native Serbia with the aim of giving every child a pre-school education. To date, the foundation has built 43 schools, trained almost 1600 teachers and helped more than 20,000 children. Unsurprisingly for an initiative set-up by one of the greatest sportsmen of his generation, the promotion of physical is a key focus for the Novak Djokovic Foundation.

A blog on its website says: “Physical activities should be integrated into young children’s lives to create a foundation of movement and activity which will be carried with them through the rest of their lives. It’s essential for a child’s development and helps lay the foundation for an active and healthy life.

Physical activities from a young age have various benefits which reach far beyond a young person’s development. A child can physically, mentally, socially and emotionally develop by taking part in exercise. The increasing use of technology in classrooms and day care focusing on mental activities rather than physical ones has led to the reduction of children’s movement and physical pursuits.”

Josie Male is a Kent-based yoga teacher and runs a children’s class at Sevenoaks Leisure Centre.  She’s a huge believer physical activity should be integrated into young children’s lives to create a foundation that will be carried with them into adulthood.

“It’s during early years children are more likely to want to try new activities, especially with their peer group. Capturing their imaginations early and mixing that enthusiasm with their inquisitive nature can offer great results,” says Josie.

“Such physical activities promote healthy growth and development of bones and muscles, as well as improving the cardiovascular system. Physical activity is also proven to help motor skills, concentration, thinking and reasoning– and it’s vital for how we develop socially and interact with others.”

There is, though, a wider, more pressing issue. In fact, such are the concerns over levels of childhood obesity that this country’s former chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies called for action across industry and the public sector to half the numbers by 2030.

A lack of physical activity in childhood can lay the basis for many health problems as well as cementing bad habits from the earliest age. The result can be weight gain, excessive body fat, high blood pressure and cholesterol, cardiovascular problems and issues with bone health.

The reverse is that active children have fewer chronic health problems and are less prone to various diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, depression and mental illness.

“Those pre-school years are so important and we often ignore just how crucial a time this is for developing bodies and minds,” says Josie.

“I’m never more amazed than when a four-year-old in my yoga class shows me how to do the Sun Salutation sequence after just a couple of weeks of learning or when I hear the sound of a class full of voices singing the lyrics to one of the relaxation pieces.

“Engaging children in physical activity from an early age not only has boundless positive physical effects, it is hugely beneficial to their mental wellbeing and social interaction. It is something we simply must address for the future. The alternative is deeply worrying.”

Sencio Community Leisure runs a range of activities, classes and school holiday programmes for young people. Go to sencio.org.uk further details. You can find out more about Josie’s work by going to: yogadoes.com

A version of this blog was written for – and was first published on – the Sencio Community Leisure website: https://www.sencio.org.uk/developing-young-bodies-and-minds/