From the moment our kids are born, we long for them to be successful and have the richest life possible. We put them in preschool so they can learn to read as soon as possible...because that is what other parents are doing. Then, we sign them up for soccer and dance lessons and karate, and chess club....because we want them to be well-rounded. Increasingly, though, time for unstructured play has been scheduled away. Is it any wonder that there is an alarming increase in the number of children taking anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medicine? Studies have linked stress in childhood to actual changes in the structure of the brain which can lead to long term effects ranging from academic troubles to long-term health issues (Brown, 2012). In response to the harried lives of many families, a growing number of pediatricians have even started prescribing nature for their patients because of the positive benefits on mental and physical health.
In addition to the lack of time spent outside at home, schools have drastically reduced recess time due to academic performance pressures. (Ginsburg, 2007). Recess time has been lost to time in the classroom. I can attest to this. When my son was in elementary school, he only had one short recess time during the day. One day he came home really grumpy and upset. After a little probing, I found out that his teacher had been making him stay inside during recess to finish his work. For many kids, time outside provides a welcome break from intense and focused schoolwork. Without this time, they become irritable and (more) fidgety. I spoke with his teacher to discuss an alternative way to get his work done. But it doesn't end there. Kids are now allowed to bring their electronic devices to school and use them at recess. And when the weather reaches a certain temperature, the kids have indoor recess for months at a time! I encourage you to find out what is happening in your school and get involved in advocating for more recess time. But I digress........
Our culture often claims that children are resilient, but recent research regarding adverse effects of stress indicate that they may not be as resilient as we once thought. BUT, we have an opportunity to make a CHANGE - change the way our children are spending their time, change the opportunities they have, and by doing so, change their well-being and future. While most often parental intentions are good - wanting to better our kids- what children often need most is the gift of time. Time to relax. Time to play. Time to get outdoors.
Occupational therapists consider play to be the essential occupation of childhood (AOTA, 2008). Through play children learn about the world around them. Play helps children grow and develop their motor skills and cognitive skills, and helps them to develop socially. Opportunities to take challenges and problem solve build strength and confidence. (Ginsburg, 2007). Typically, unstructured play outside directly correlates to the amount of physical activity a child participates in. Exploration and curiosity result in walking, running and climbing, etc. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that every child over 6 participates in at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day. Many children fail to achieve this important goal.
So, my challenge for you is to get your kids outside for 30-60 minutes a day in the upcoming week. If this is new or challenging, I have some suggestions to help make it work for both you and you kids. If they are not used to the idea of being outside, they may resist. Finding things to do and being imaginative may take getting used to, if it isn't something they are accustomed to. You will most likely have to limit their screen time, which may cause resistance, but be strong and consistent. As with any new habit, it takes time to develop. They also need permission - permission to get dirt on their hands, get messy, permission to get mud on their clothes and especially for boys, permission to wear holes in the knees of their pants! You might hear those dreaded words......"I'm bored" initially but with my suggestions below I think you'll hear that less and less over time.
Kids need TIME, a PLACE, some basic MATERIALS, some SUGGESTIONS and better yet, involvement with YOU. Not only are you encouraging activity and fresh air, you are creating fond memories of childhood. Focus on knowing your child and finding things that match their age and interests. It won't be the same for everyone. For instance, I have one daughter who is very artistic so she loves to draw with chalk on the driveway, while my son is more of an adventure seeker and is more likely to be seen roaming the yard carrying a bucket and some rope.
Kids need to a place to run and explore. If you don't have a yard where they can do this, seek out some local parks, find some hiking trails. Be adventurous and try something new. We are always seeking out fun and unique playgrounds. Kids love water play so look for streams or ponds where they can throw sticks and skip rocks! Find nature centers in your area.
Provide kids with toys, games and materials that give opportunities for play and movement.
This does not have to cost a lot of money - search garage sales, trade with friends, use clean containers for water play and mud play.
Below are some suggestions of toys and the corresponding skills that they encourage. All of these promote general physical activity but the occupational therapist in me couldn't help showing you some of the many other skills used with these items!:
"There is nothing to do"..... "I'm bored" ......These are things a parent doesn't want to hear. I have found that if you make a list of potential options of things to do that it gives children a place to start. Have them get involved in making the list. The more they are involved, the more invested they will become. Then, if they say they are bored you can just send them to the list! The list can include things such as make a fort, draw with chalk, and make an obstacle course. Or try the scavenger hunts I have put together.
Click here for Printable Scavenger hunts
There are some great books out there to help you if you need some inspirations. Some of my favorites are (see my Things To Read page for links to purchase:
Hi! I'm Ann - mother of seven, grandmother of two and occupational therapist. My mission is to provide the support families need to raise thriving children and to help you build a family environment that supports healthy development and a pathway to success.
Great blogs to check out:
Rain or Shine Mamma
Children & Nature Network
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