2010 Olympic Winter Games

Honourable senators, I know it is late in the day, but I promised Senator Raine that I would speak today on her inquiry. We have had many disagreements today or many interpretations of different issues, but I think we can agree on the senator’s inquiry. I rise today to share with honourable senators my thoughts about the inquiry launched by Senator Raine regarding the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.

Our colleague rightly pointed to these Olympians as a source of inspiration for physical fitness and health among Canadians, especially young Canadians who were with us only moments ago.

Statistics do not lie and we know that when it comes to physical fitness we are in big trouble in this country. I remind you that Senator Raine said nearly one in four Canadians are obese.

As we raised the alarm about the danger of cigarette smoking and its lethal health effects, so we must raise the alarm about the deadly effects of obesity and lack of physical fitness. Obesity leads to lifelong chronic illnesses, including diabetes. Worldwide, physical inactivity contributes to 2 million preventable deaths every year.

Facts are also available to show how we can overcome this obesity epidemic, and it starts with our children. To be healthy, children and youth need 90 minutes of physical activity every day, yet a Canadian survey indicates that only 36 per cent of two- and three-year-olds and 44 per cent of four- and five-year-olds regularly engage in unorganized sport and physical activity each week. Less than one third of children in Canada walk or ride their bikes to school and only one province, Manitoba, has mandated daily physical education for children up to grade 12.

What are kids doing if they are not inside playing? They are inside sitting in front of a television or computer screen, on average for six hours a day during the week and seven hours a day on weekends.

What should we do? As we labelled cigarettes to warn people of their health effects, so should we insist that televisions, computers and other entertainment screens have a clear message printed on them: “Warning: Excessive screen time is dangerous to your health and leads to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and depression.” Depression is something the Senate studied and issued a report on.

Yes, depression. We know that being physically active helps one stay mentally active and healthy. I know my weekly hockey games and my basketball games with my friends are of huge importance to my physical and mental well-being; just ask my wife.

Physical activity has also been identified as a way to prevent Alzheimer’s. When it comes to kids, physical activity leads to better health but also better grades and happier children. An initiative in Ontario to increase physical activity among kids resulted in a 36-per-cent increase in reading scores and a 24-per- cent increase in math scores.

The United Nations, the World Health Organization, the Canadian Paediatric Society, the Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute and the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada have all come out strongly to say that every school child should have physical education every day. Physical education in schools is absolutely important, but I want to advocate something else for children, though it sounds like nothing. I want to defend the right of children to have lots of time every day for unstructured play; a time to go outside and play.

This most elemental activity, one we all shared at one time, is now missing from the lives of most Canadian children. As schools struggle to meet rigorous academic standards, we see that recess has been cut back or eliminated. Remember that period of time when you played marbles in the cold outside, only to do something? By the way, recess was my favourite subject in school.

Recess is extremely important. Studies show that recess, in addition to the benefits of physical fitness, helps children stay focused and on task once they are back in the classroom. When they are active, children produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in memory and problem-solving. The bottom line is that play leads to excellence.

This play is especially important for children with attention deficit disorder, ADD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ADHD, whose numbers, as we know, are growing. Consider for the moment the story of James Watt. He was called the inventor of the steam engine by many. Legend has it that young James was in the kitchen of his home daydreaming. He was doing nothing but daydreaming while the kettle was on the stove. As he stared out into space, he noticed the kettle’s top sputtered and jumped as the steam built up. He saw the power behind the steam and the rest, as they say, is history.

Let us consider whether young James would have been able to have such a moment if he was staring at a computer screen or busily finishing his homework to climb in the car with mom and dad to be driven to a soccer practice, after which was a violin lesson or an organized play date with a kid across town. It is all organized.

I am talking about unstructured play. Let us be reckless a little bit; let us let our children be free in that way. We need to remember it is okay for kids to be bored from time to time. A report from the American Academy of Pediatrics says that unstructured time helps children use their creativity. They find out what they like and they have time to work out their social skills. They learn how to solve problems. Children who have unstructured play tend to be more resilient.

Why do they not walk or bike to school? Think how much happier and healthier children would be, how much cleaner our air would be and how much safer our streets would be if children biked and walked to school. However, we live in an environment now where parents are so worried about their children’s safety that they insist on driving them to school, even though crime rates are at their lowest level in decades.

This fear for our children’s safety has become unhealthy. Consider modern playgrounds. We will not find a see-saw or a merry-go-round. They are too dangerous, as are monkey bars and slides that are six feet tall. We want to create a world where no child can be injured and, in the process, we are creating a generation of inactive, overweight children who are losing out on the adventure and normal risk-taking that is such an important part of childhood.

I worked closely with Special Olympics athletes and there was a time long ago when we had horrible names for those with intellectual disabilities, and when such children were not allowed to play or to be part of sport. Can you imagine? These Special Olympians were not allowed to be part of sports. There are 32,000 Special Olympians in this country, and millions around the world. Yet Dr. Frank Hayden, a great friend of mine — we call him Dr. Frank in the Special Olympics movement — convinced Eunice Shriver of the Kennedy family. It worked two ways. It did not come only from the Kennedys, but started here in this country. They produced a report many years ago in the mid- 1960s to say it was okay to allow those with intellectual disabilities to go out and play, participate and be part of our society.

I think the rest of society must go back and allow children to do the same things.

If kids do not encounter any risks, how will they develop confidence and common sense? In the United States, some schools have outlawed tag and other running games because children might fall and hurt themselves. Of course, every playground fatality or serious injury is a tragedy, but they are less frequent than lightning strikes. In our bid to prevent them, we are creating a generation of kids who cannot do a chin-up or develop the cardiovascular fitness required for a good game of tag.

Honourable senators, research shows clearly that children who lack opportunities for play do not grow into happy, healthy adults. I applaud Senator Nancy Greene Raine’s call for the Olympic Games to serve as inspiration for better physical activity in adults and children. Those games were indeed inspirational and so were the Paralympic Games. I spent a week there.

We use the term, “Own the Podium.” We owned the podium, and it was exciting and wonderful. Now I think it is time to go back to the basics. We had our terminology way back when of ParticipACTION. It was fun; I still have my T-shirt with the pink sneaker on it.

However, I think it is time we “Own the Playground.” It is time to return to owning Canada’s playgrounds: the one at school or down the street; the one where everyone meets in the summer after dinner and plays until the street lights come on.

I walk home. However, as most senators head home, they jump into a taxi and head down Bronson Avenue to the airport. Before the Bronson Bridge, there is a little park. Maybe I will have a park one day in my name. Regardless, there is a park and it is Senator Eugene Forsey Park. It is a sweet little children’s park. I never see anyone in it. Sometimes when I go by, the gates are locked. I cannot understand that. Senator Eugene Forsey was a wonderful sweet man who served this country well, so someone obviously thought to name a park after him. Those of us who worked in the media back then were always talking to Senator Forsey because we did not understand how Parliament worked. That one park sits out there and I never see anyone in it. We need to be more proactive.

With our children, we are cocooning them indoors. We believe we are keeping them safe but I do not think we are, and keeping them indoors is leading to obesity.

In closing, I endorse Senator Raine’s proposal and will use her words:

. . . we must use the school system to deliver the necessary physical education programs. These programs must start in kindergarten and go all the way to Grade 12.

That is what the honourable senator said. This proposal is not rocket science. To help them grow into healthy adults, we need to ensure that schools offer physical education, that we limit the time children spend in front of screens and that we push them out the door so they can play and explore. We need to let the children play.