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The family way
7:00am Saturday 1st September 2012 in NewsXtra
Marathon runner and mum Paula Radcliffe talks about how encouraging children to play from an early age can inspire the athletes of tomorrow, and how her own young children learn to overcome challenges through play.
By Lisa Salmon
After the huge disappointment of missing the Olympics through injury, marathon runner Paula Radcliffe has turned her attention from running to another of her passions - children and sport.
In the true spirit of Olympic legacy, the marathon world record holder is fronting a campaign to encourage babies and children to get active and involved in sport and exercise from a very young age.
The athlete, who's waiting for surgery on the degenerated ankle joint that forced her to pull out of the Olympics, is appearing in videos showing how to get babies and children active and involved in sport as part of the Pampers Little Athlete Campaign.
She says: "I think the biggest legacy of these Olympics is that young children will have watched a sport, be inspired to try it, and they'll be hooked."
Radcliffe, who has two children - Isla, aged five, and Raphael, nearly two - has teamed up with baby development expert Dr Maggie Redshaw to give parents simple tips on getting babies and very young children active and showing how it helps their development.
Radcliffe says: "As an athlete I know how effort and determination can help us reach our full potential. As a mum I see the same determination in my children as they learn to overcome everyday challenges through play.
"Supporting today's little athletes, whether or not they grow up to become tomorrow's professional athletes, is so important as play helps babies develop, just as sport helps children learn important life skills."
The play and skills Radcliffe and Redshaw are highlighting include simply letting baby hold your finger as he walks to help him balance, encouraging baby to use push/pull toys to improve coordination, and creating lower, softer surfaces for baby to climb on to - like a big cushion or your lap.
There's also introducing simple ball games and encouraging youngsters who can walk to chase after balls. Such fun with balls will encourage active play - running and chasing and working with other people, explains Redshaw.
Radcliffe, 38, says she's always been passionate about introducing children to sport and being active, and she points out: "Kids naturally want to run around and play, and it's the best way to bond with your children and help them discover and learn."
She says her kids love sport, and she expects they'll be sporty as they grow older.
However, she won't be pushing them into it, she stresses, pointing out that she was never forced to run and sport needs to be something kids simply enjoy.
"My parents never pushed me into running - it came from me, it was what I wanted to do, and if you're going to take it to the very highest level, that's the way it has to be," she stresses.
"You should be doing a sport just because you love it, and that's why I would never push my kids into it.
"I'd be thrilled if they wanted to go into my sport, but at the same time I would never push them to take it up."
She tells how Isla has said, 'Mummy, I don't want to do running because it makes your foot hurt', and describes how she showed her daughter pictures of Chinese children in their tough sports schools when the Olympics were on, and the little girl cried and said she never wanted to go to anything like that.
"It was pretty scary for her, it's very extreme," says Radcliffe.
"If you don't like a sport, don't do it - go and find a sport you really enjoy.
"It's better that children get the chance to do lots of different sports, as it's best to find something you love doing than force yourself to do something you don't enjoy just because it's good for you."
The idea behind the Pampers Little Athlete campaign, she says, is to show parents how young children develop through play, and remind them that keeping kids active is vital.
"It's a good way to make you think that it's not the best thing for your child just to be plonked down and left there.
"Children and babies need to move around - it's vital, this is when the foundations are laid down for a lifetime of activity."
She says sport was part of her day when she was a child, and being active was normal.
"That's the way I've tried to be with my children as well - they're non-stop running around, and that's the best way to be.
"I passionately believe that sport can bring so much to everyone, and definitely to children and how they develop, learn things about themselves, their confidence, how they go on to perform at school and how they learn to interact with others."
Radcliffe admits she still hasn't come to terms with missing the London Olympics, but says she's very proud of her fellow athletes, and particularly double gold medallist Mo Farah, stressing: "It was certainly the best Olympic Games I've been to, even with my disappointment."
She says she's positive the surgery she'll soon have on her left foot joint will get her running again, but stresses that sport's long-term future depends on children.
"By encouraging our children to play from an early age, we can hopefully inspire the athletes of tomorrow and help to secure the future success of the Olympic Games."
:: For more about the Pampers Little Athlete campaign, visit the Pampers UK & Ireland Facebook page www.facebook.com/pampersukire
Ask the expert
Q: "I'm really stressed because of work and looking after the kids. How might my tension affect the children?"
A: David Code, author of Kids Pick Up on Everything (CreateSpace, £10.84), says: "Medical researchers have discovered that a parent's stress can literally, physiologically, alter a child's genes, through a process called epigenetics.
"Stress appears to be a major risk factor for the increase we've seen in child disorders.
"For generations, parents have remarked that kids pick up on everything, but for the first time, we understand how.
"It turns out that each of our genes has an 'on/off switch', known as the epigenome. In a child's developing brain or immune system, even small amounts of stress can switch on genes that cause illness, or switch off genes that prevent illness.
"Sometimes a child soaks up the tension in the household until his or her developing nervous system hits overload, and then they develop a disorder.
"This makes perfect sense from an evolutionary point of view. In a developing child, the brain takes an increase in stress hormones to mean there's a threat, so the brain tries to adapt the child's defences to better respond to that threat.
"Believe it or not, research suggests that allergies, asthma, obesity, and ADHD may be an evolutionary adaptation - the body's primitive attempt to defend itself - gone too far.
"Fortunately, preliminary research suggests the effects of stress on a child's genes may be reversible, but the earlier the intervention, the better.
"Parents should take this news as 'doctor's orders' to relax, socialise more and have fun. Their children's health may depend on it."
Skin & sun kits for kids
Supergoop Weekend Away SPF Essentials Kit
Packed with everything needed when taking the kids for a few days in the sun, including sunscreen swipes, sun lotion spray, lip balm and a sun stick, all in a terry-cloth bag. Suitable for age four months plus, £15, available from www.huggle.co.uk
GAIA Natural Baby Starter Kit
Containing only ingredients beneficial to baby's skin including organic vegetable oils and calming plant extracts, this kit includes baby massage oil, baby moisturiser, baby shampoo, skin soothing lotion and bath and body wash. Suitable from birth, £11, available from www.nctshop.co.uk
Johnson's Baby Starter Pack
Plenty of Johnson's favourite baby products in one zip bag with a changing mat, including body wash, baby oil, fragrance-free wipes, cotton pads, and a baby massage guide. Suitable from birth, £10.50, available from Boots and leading retailers.