During the Confetti dance class at the McHenry Municipal Center, where students learn the basic steps of tap dance and ballet, 4-year-old Kylie holds a bar as she and other youngsters tap their toes three times and then kick.
“Kick as high as you can,” instructor Nicole Goy said to the youngsters. “Point your toe. Keep going.”
Having Kylie in the class is one way her mother, Tina Stevens, makes sure that her daughter has an activity that helps her socialize and be physically active.
“Sitting inside doing nothing doesn’t make them grow,” Stevens said. “Playing video games doesn’t expand their mind.
“It expands them socially when they’re around other kids. It’s better to be active, period.”
Being around others who are active is a key to making sure that a youngster stays active.
According to a recent Vanderbilt University study, children who spend more time with active friends tend to be more active themselves.
In the study, 80 children, ages 5 to 12, were observed for 12 weeks during their after-care programs, where children could interact with different peers during the day. Children’s activity levels and with whom they spent time were monitored.
“We found that children in this age group are six times more likely to adjust to their friends’ activity level than not,” Sabina Gessell, a research assistant professor at Vanderbilt, said in a news release. “In fact, a network of four to five immediate friends has a significant influence on any individual child regardless of their usual activity level.”
Researchers said more active groups tended to bring a child’s activity level up, while groups that were more sedentary brought an individual child’s activity levels down.
Researchers also found that children chose their peers based on gender and age, rather than those who had the same activity levels.
“The average activity level of the group of friends is what influences an individual child,” Gessell said. “Children are constantly adjusting their activity levels to match their peer group.”
Chris Leathers, owner of Your World Fitness in Spring Grove, said the first key in making sure children stay active is for parents to stay active themselves.
“I’m a big believer in ‘practice what you preach,’ ” Leathers said.
Leathers, who works with youth teams, agreed with the study that children being around other active children is beneficial and encouraged them to join sports teams.
“If we can introduce kids to the benefits of being active and living healthy, then by the time they get to be adults and they don’t have gym class, working out will be an opportunity and fun habit, rather than a chore,” Leathers said.
He said that as obesity becomes more of a problem in the country, people need to develop fitness and active living habits in their children.
Leathers said peer pressure can be used for good.
When Leathers trains groups of youngsters, he will give rewards such as T-shirts to youngsters who show the most effort.
“The other kids say, ‘I guess I’m going to work hard, too,’ ” Leathers said.
Anne Fritz has enrolled her two children, Nataleen, 6, and Harrison, 8, into activities and likes to encourage them to play outside with other kids.
“I feel it’s an old-school thing,” Fritz said. “When I was a kid, we’d go outside and figure out what to do.”