On 7th and 8th February 2022, the French presidency of the Council of the European Union’s first conference on sport titled ‘Sports and Sustainable Development Goals in Childhood: Societal issues regarding appropriate physical activities’ took place at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris.
Over two days, different stakeholders discussed how to further promote childhood physical activity, and how this can be done while also contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
In his opening remarks, Mr Xing Qu, UNESCO Deputy Director General, reiterated the many benefits of practicing sport from an early age, notably to improve physical and mental health as well as general wellbeing. Yet, data shows an overall decline of physical activity levels, with a particular dip since 2020 due to the pandemic. As a result, physical education teachers report that children’s wellbeing has deteriorated. The conference therefore serves as a call to action to include access to physical activity in every country’s pandemic recovery plan. In addition, Mr Qu further highlighted the importance of sport to help build more sustainable, inclusive, and fairer societies.
Subsequently, Roxana Maracineanu, French Minister of Sports, Anders Ygeman, Swedish Minister of Sports, and Filip Neusser, Director of the Czech National Sports Agency, all emphasized the importance of sport and physical activity to sensitize children to sustainable development. The Czech Republic and Sweden, which will chair the Presidency of the Council of the EU after France, will also work to increase attention for the importance of sustainable and accessible sport infrastructures.
The remarks were followed by several roundtables discussing physical literacy and the social values children could learn through sport, such as gender equality and inclusion.
Sport and physical activity were further depicted as the ideal channels through which to raise children’s awareness, knowledge and understanding of nature and sustainability. This environmental learning helps develop one’s relationship with nature, while equally contributing to mental and physical wellbeing.
Subsequent discussions emphasised the drastic levels that physical inactivity among children have reached- with 80% of children being insufficiently active pre-pandemic, the status quo has worsened since the start of the pandemic: physical activity has dropped by 41% with a 200% increase in mental health conditions being reported among youth, according to UNESCO.
Following the sharing of good practices and research findings, stakeholders stressed the need for policy coherence, cross-sector, and multi-level government cooperation in order to tackle the growing physical inactivity crisis that is hitting disadvantaged socioeconomic groups particularly harshly.