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Activity is a vital ingredient in pupils' health, writes Diane Hofkins

Everyone is united on the importance of play. In its latest study, the National Foundation for Educational Research asked five-year-olds about the transition from reception to Year 1, and they said they missed the chance to play (TES, April 15).

The early-years lobby has been expounding the importance of play in children's learning and development for decades. But now that Jamie Oliver has put healthy eating in schools high up on the menu, children's charities are taking the opportunity to highlight the role of play, as well as nutrition, in fighting childhood obesity.

The Children's Play Council is cock-a-hoop because the Big Lottery Fund has announced a pound;155 million play programme in England to create and improve children's play spaces in the areas of greatest need.

The play council's newsletter, Play Today, was quick to draw together the arguments linking play with better health.

Four years ago, the British Medical Journal reported on the growing obesity problem in pre-school children, and suggested that "opportunities for spontaneous play may be the only requirement that young children need to increase their physical activity".

The Lancet medical journal said that bad habits are developed between the ages of three and five, while Professor Roger Mackett from University College London, who advised MPs on school transport, revealed that unstructured play was second only to PE lessons in burning calories. He was writing in a report, Making Children's Lives More Active, which was submitted to the education select committee last year.

Professor Mackett's statistics showed that 11 and 13-year-olds burned 3.1 calories per minute in PE or games, 2.5 during unstructured ball games and 1.8 in other unstructured play. Children burned 1.9 calories per minute during break, but only 0.6 in ordinary lessons. Schools cutting break-times so that pupils can spend more time packing in literacy and numeracy should take note.

Another salutary statistic: walking to and from school burns more calories per week (388) than two hours of PE or games (376). There is also mounting evidence that parents need to be educated about healthy eating and activity for their children.

Professor Mackett's research also found that only 60 per cent of children played outside. "The one thing that children should not be doing is sitting at home - they should be out, running around," he said.

Meanwhile, new research from UCL has found that nearly all parents (98 per cent) of overweight three to five-year-olds did not realise their children were too heavy.

Moreover, only 17.1 per cent of parents whose not-so-little ones were medically classified as obese described their children as overweight.

Email primary@tes.co.uk

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