Brock team launches pilot program to increase physical activity among immigrant children

A lack of knowledge and understanding paired with fewer opportunities are among the reasons why newcomer children and youth tend to be less active than their Canadian-born counterparts, says a Brock University child expert.

“Importantly, there is a wealth of research that suggests new immigrants and refugees experience poorer health as their time in Canada increases, which in part may be linked to these patterns of inactivity,” says Associate Professor of Child and Youth Studies Matt Kwan.

Kwan and his collaborators are aiming to change that. They have created a unique pilot program called Immigrant-focused Physical Literacy for Youth (IPLAY) with the aim of boosting the physical activity levels of newcomer youths through improvements in physical literacy.

“The idea here is to try and build the foundations for newcomer youths to be able to experience novel movement games and activities and become more motivated to go out and seek opportunities to lead healthy, active lifestyles,” says Kwan, Canada Research Chair in Youth Mental Health and Performance.

A man stands before a busy classroom of people.

Matt Kwan, Brock University Associate Professor of Child and Youth Studies and Canada Research Chair in Youth Mental Health and Performance, leads a session at a national summit where he engaged with stakeholders, community partners, policy-makers and academics.

With funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Kwan’s team has rolled out IPLAY through a partnership with Calgary-based WinSport. The not-for-profit sport organization recently hosted a national summit — funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research — bringing together stakeholders, community organizations, policy-makers and academics with particular interest in newcomer children and youth.

Calgary was chosen for the pilot and national summit because it’s been identified as a major “arrival city” for new immigrants and refugees.

IPLAY, an eight-week program specifically designed for newcomer youth aged 12 to 16, provides participants the opportunity to engage in a variety of new activities and games that target different movement skills each week. In addition to Kin-Ball and archery, youth get to experience activities such as ice luge and human curling at the arena on site.

“For this pilot, we have worked with a newcomer service organization to recruit mostly Afghani refugee youths,” says Kwan. “It’s been awesome to see these smiling faces, as the ice and cold are still foreign to many of these youths that have been in Canada for less than one year.”

The program, he says, enables participants to try new activities and see where their strengths and interests are. It also gives them the confidence, motivation and knowledge to seek out opportunities within the broader community, he adds.

Researchers from Brock University and the University of Calgary are examining the acceptability and feasibility of the program, but also its potential impact on psychosocial development.

“The aim of the program is to build in movement competencies, confidence, motivation, knowledge and understanding, which are the key components of what we call physical literacy,” says Sujane Kandasamy, a post-doctoral fellow and co-investigator on the project.

As part of the research’s knowledge mobilization activities, Kandasamy and team plan to produce two digital stories or short films to capture the newcomer youth experiences with the IPLAY program, and to also document the academic-community stakeholder partnership activities.

Getting enough physical activity is a challenge for children in Canada in general. According to the 2022 ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth, only 28 per cent of children and youth meet physical activity recommendations within the Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Youth.

“It is problematic that newcomer children and youth are even more susceptible to physical inactivity. With new immigration policies, along with the continual intake of refugees in Canada, this is an important group to focus in on,” says Kwan. “Our pilot project, along with our national summit, are critical first steps towards building capacity and partnerships to better address the issues of inactivity among newcomer children and youth, with long-term hopes of creating an ecosystem that includes effective evidence-informed programs that help sustain healthy, active lifestyles.”

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