All the experts agree – exercise is an essential part of a healthy childhood. With obesity, diabetes, and heart disease rates on the rise, establishing habits that include regular exercise is very important. It will set your child up for a longer and healthier life. When you get involved and go outside to do things with your children, you are helping them build their strength, stamina and skills, as well as your own. Spending time together outdoors can be quality family time; it is time for telling stories and laughing together while your kids develop lifelong habits that include exercise and enjoyment of the natural world. We all know that exercise and muscle activity build strength and muscle endurance. In addition, exercising helps your child to have a healthy heart, good circulation (cardio-vascular system), strong lungs (pulmonary system), strong bones (skeletal system), and it even supports language skills and academics.
During exercise, your heart has to pump more blood to the muscles so they can have oxygen. Your lungs work to bring in oxygen to transfer it to your bloodstream. Muscle activity creates waste products which are carried away by the circulation of blood throughout the body.
Bone growth in children occurs in the growth plates which are located at the ends of the long bones. In adults, bone continually undergoes a remodeling process in which old bone is replaced with new bone. Bones are actually healthier when they are under the kinds of stress they experience during weight-bearing exercise. Some of the benefit comes from simply bearing weight through the bones. Additional stresses are placed on the bones during movement at the points where tendons and ligaments attach. As one exercises, the muscles contract and the joints move, putting stress on the bones at these attachment points. This activity causes microscopic cracks in the bone, which are repaired with replacement bone tissue.
Exercise offers so many benefits to the body but many people don’t realize that there are many cognitive benefits too. Have you ever noticed that when you are working on something that requires focus and attention it is helpful to stop periodically and move around a bit? This holds true for your children too. Taking a short 3 minute movement break can help refocus the mind and improve the child’s ability to attend to the task at hand.
There is also scientific evidence that movement stimulates a part of the brain called the cerebellum. Scientists used to think that the role of this area of the brain was to refine our movements. Now it is recognized that activating the cerebellum through movement will also support learning, especially for the kinds of information that become automatic-like learning to write for example.
Everything a child learns in school, even things that depend on high-level abstract thinking, is based on concrete physical experiences from earlier points in childhood. For example, the concept of subtraction can only be understood because the child has had the earlier concrete experience of moving his body backwards through space. Thus, the concept “take away” makes sense to him. Understanding the concepts of geometry are completely dependent on a child’s first having had experiences in which she had to move her body over, under, around or through space in order to experience basic spatial concepts in relation to her own body in space. Likewise, the experience of sequencing and executing movement patterns is the foundation for learning to sequence and order our belongings, our language, and our thoughts. This applies to being able to maintain order in a desk, backpack, or home environment, as well as being able to plan how to accomplish a long term project with complex requirements and elements.
Production of speech requires complex motor sequencing that coordinates placement of the lips, cheeks, tongue, and diaphragm (breath) to produce the correct sounds in the proper sequence to make words. Those words must then be connected together in the correct sequence to make sentences. Being able to use language for communication of complex ideas and thoughts requires following the “rules” of our linguistic system as well as sequencing sentences in the correct order to convey the intended meaning. All of these skills are based on the foundation of early motor experiences.
Kids’ choices of activities will depend on personality and preferences, so be sure to take these into account as you decide what activities to arrange for your child. Discuss it with your child if she is old enough to tell you. For some kids, joining a team is the ideal way to get fit, learn specific motor skills, and have the experience of being part of a group. For others, the thought of participating in organized sport creates anxiety. For these kids, or for kids who are too young for organized team play, parents have to find alternative ways to help their kids get active. Here are some things you and your kids can consider doing outdoors.
- Tee-ball, Little League, softball, baseball
- Swim team
Individual or family activities
- Practice component skills for team sports (eg dribbling, kicking, passing, etc.)
- Play catch
- Bike ride
- Bocce ball
- Jump rope
- Walk on curbs/ lines
- Sidewalk chalk
- Rollerblade/Inline skates
- Scooter board
Informal small group play
- Capture the flag
- Toss across
- Scavenger hunt
- Follow the leader
- Basketball – HORSE
- Informal team sport play
- Outdoor water play in sprinkler
- Follow the leader
- Simon Says
- Dodge ball
- Red light, green light
- Mother May I
- Red Rover
- Ice skating
- Hide and seek
This list is by no means complete! If your favorite outdoor activities are not here, feel free to add them-the most important thing is to get out there and get active- the quality of your child’s life depends on it!