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School Starters Out into the World : Run, Jump, and Play Keeping them moving (part 1) - Everyday active play for families Some suggestions

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Q: I’m always in the car taking my son to his after-school activities. I don’t feel the whole family is getting much exercise from this.
A: It may feel like you’re just the family taxi driver, but this is an important role in keeping your child active. While driving to an activity is not strictly family exercise, you could make the most of the journey by asking what each activity entails and find out what he likes best. Of course, if it’s possible to walk together to the activity, that would count as family exercise as well as time to talk. Even if you’re just the driver, you can still get involved in your child’s activities by staying to watch a lesson or practicing at home with him afterward. Whether you have goal-shooting practice in the yard, help him learn lines for his part in a play, or practice tumbles and balance for his gym class, you’re doing your part.
Q: Our doctor said that our son is overweight for his age. Isn’t this just baby fat that he’ll grow out of?
A: It doesn’t always feel good to be given this sort of news, and sometimes being told what’s best for you and your family can initiate the opposite effect—active resistance. It may help to ask yourself what the motivation is of the person who is offering advice: Doctors do not wish to annoy or upset you and are well aware of how sensitive the issue can be.

It is their responsibility, however, to challenge your belief in “baby fat,” since the majority of children do not grow out of it without being introduced to a healthier lifestyle. In effect you are being told that you are the best person to solve this problem. Not to do so risks long-term health problems for your son and, sadly, he may be targeted by bullies, which can affect his self-esteem. If you can, set aside your emotions and put your energy instead into making changes in the activity levels and diet of your whole family. This way you’ll all reap the benefits, and your son won’t feel like he’s being singled out.

Q: How can I motivate my child when I hate to be active myself?
A: A small shift in how you think about exercise can work wonders on your motivation. When you label physical activity as “play,” as your child probably does, then you gain a different set of expectations and emotions. You may have associated exercise in the past with effort, boredom, or strain, whereas the label “play” could bring up thoughts of fun, family times, and being light-hearted, all of which make it more likely you’ll want to join in. Test out your perceptions with an experiment to see if you find active play enjoyable. For a week, engage in some energetic play every day, and monitor your mood afterward. Try playing tag or ball games outside with your child, or join in dancing or hide-and-seek in the house. See if you rate yourself as having improved or lowered your level of happiness or satisfaction each time. It’s likely, no matter how unwilling you were, you’ll be energized and positive afterward, and both you and your child will be motivated to do more.
Q: Does running around before bed help my child sleep?
A: It’s great to see children playing out and running around, but physical activity immediately before bedtime can make it harder to settle down to sleep. Do bring your child inside about an hour before you expect him to be in bed, and start his regular bedtime routine. This way he can wind down from the excitement of his bike ride, game of tag, or other game, and be ready to sleep on time.
Q: I’m reluctant to let my child play outside in case she is abducted. Am I being overcautious?
A: Any harm to a child is truly terrible, and while child abductions are very rare, their devastating impact appears to have contributed to parents these days being more sensitive to risks than in previous generations.

Only you can decide how to keep your child safe, but playing outdoors, exploring the natural environment, and trying new things are important to her development. It is worth carefully considering how you can increase your confidence that it’s safe to play outside. Begin by making sure outdoor space is free of dangers. Remove broken glass or plant pots, repair old play equipment, and lock away garden implements to make it safe. Get supervision organized to your satisfaction. It is recommended that children up to age eight be supervised by an adult or mature older child even when playing in a group. The biggest boost to your confidence will come when you watch over your child yourself. If another parent is supervising, check their views on safety: Don’t assume these are the same as your own.

One of the biggest dangers your child faces outdoors is road traffic, because she’s not yet able to judge speed and distance accurately. Teach her road safety, stay close to her as she plays, and set clear rules, such as, “You can play in our yard, but not outside the gate or on the road.” Keep in mind that achieving the delicate balance of protecting your child while teaching her independence will keep you on your toes for years to come.

Q: I’ve heard that there is a link between television and an unhealthy lifestyle. What are your recommendations?
A: Your child’s television viewing patterns are probably already well established. However, as her free time becomes increasingly filled with homework and after-school activities, take the opportunity to review her viewing habits. Experts recommend children have no more than two hours per day of screen time; this includes computer, television, and gaming time. Sticking to this limit will enable your child to have a balanced diet of play including time for physical activity and socializing.

Your child may already be pestering you for a TV in her bedroom, and statistics tell us that many of her peers will already have one. However, there is little to be gained by going along with this. Having a television in her room can mean your child spends more time alone just at the age when talking, playing, and being with others is the keystone to her development. It’ll also be harder to keep track of what she’s watching and for how long.

Another side effect of a bedroom television is that your child doesn’t have to share; reducing squabbles in this way denies her vital practice in turn-taking and resolving disputes. If your child has a television in her bedroom, it may be tempting to allow her to doze off while watching. This actually delays her falling asleep, since television programs require her to try to keep her eyes open rather than closed and motivate her to struggle to stay awake rather than fall asleep. A link can also be created between television watching and sleep, meaning your child may find it hard to fall asleep without it in future. It’s preferable not to start this practice, but if it’s already happening, act now to swap the television for a bedtime story from you. She may resist the change, but stick with it—you’ll have more quality time together, and she won’t be dependent on the television to go to sleep.

The lack of balance between the energy your child consumes in food, and the amount of physical activity she takes is the cause of obesity. Television doesn’t make your child overweight, but it does contribute to this energy imbalance by its sedentary nature. If your child regularly spends hours each day in passive pursuits, then she will have too little time for the active play and physical sports which are essential for maintaining a healthy weight. Get the balance right by ensuring her free time involves a mix of physical, social, and passive activities. Limit television time if you need to, and be ready for some resistance at first.

Q: What’s the best way to introduce extra activities?
A: To begin, take it slow and just add one activity a week, then build from there. This will allow everyone to get used to the change. Making more effort to get active doesn’t mean going to extremes, such as banning all computer games or cutting out every snack or treat. Radical change can backfire if your child resists or becomes resentful. Get the balance right between active and sedentary play by ensuring neither takes over his schedule.

Any change in behavior or attitude is more successful if those around you support your decision. Get your relatives, neighbors, and your child’s friends involved by explaining what you hope to gain from sitting less, playing more, and eating well. Encourage them to notice positive changes as their interest will help him recognize what he’s achieved. After a few months of healthy lifestyle change, review your progress. You may be pleasantly surprised!

Couch potatoes A wake-up call

We have always been a family of couch potatoes. Flopping down in front of the TV was our main form of relaxation. Our wake-up call came when our daughter had to do an exercise for her math homework, adding up, hour by hour, what we did over the course of one weekend. It was embarrassing exactly how much of our life revolved around the TV, and it was obvious that she was missing out on other things.

We still love our TV, but now we make regular trips to the local playground and, once a week, we go bowling as a family. We eat our meals at the table, too, since we weren’t appreciating our food when we watched TV and ate at the same time. If that math exercise happened now, I know we’d come out looking better.

Everyday active play for families Some suggestions

Making a commitment to active play couldn’t come at a better time, since the benefits to health and child development are now well known. Getting active together can build family bonds, improve your child’s confidence, and teach her about both teamwork and playing by the rules.

Daily dose

Studies predict that if every family took part in just 15 minutes of active play per day, then childhood obesity could be halved. Your family doesn’t need to go on a five-mile walk or have a full game of football to get the benefit of exercise. Try playing Frisbee, hula hoops, or skipping in the yard, take a walk to a local pond to feed the ducks, exercise the dog, go down the street to mail a letter, or have a dancing competition indoors, and you’ll fit in your 15 minutes of activity easily.

Ages and stages

If you’re trying to suit children of different ages, it’s easier if you avoid team sports and try for activities in which each child can go at their own pace. Swimming, trampolining, and cycling fit the bill and can be organized for the whole family together. Games in the yard or park such as treasure hunts, obstacle courses, and throwing competitions can be made fair for a young child by giving them an advantage such as standing closer or starting ahead of the rest, which means everyone can join in.

Organized activities and clubs

Bump up motivation and a sense of mutual achievement by taking part in an activity with a group of children and adults. Commitment to other players makes it harder to opt out of sessions when your energy levels are low. Try out a few different sports or teams to find the ones that suit your family. Martial arts, swimming clubs, dance classes, and drama groups often take children from age five onward. Remember—however welcoming a club is, at first your family may feel like the outsiders compared to long-standing members. This will soon change as you get to know each other and enjoy working toward similar goals.

Get out

Give your family a mood-boosting moment by playing outdoors. Studies show that being in any sort of natural environment such as a garden or park can improve health and lift the spirits. Make the most of warm days by getting out the baby pool or sandbox, join in with a water fight, have a picnic in the park, or venture into the countryside. Let yourselves go by splashing in puddles and give your child a giggle by getting muddy together. Don’t let wet or cold days stop you—bundle up your child and take to the outdoors.

Balance

Being active is important for your whole family, but can get out of balance if you have one child who’s truly talented or passionate about their sport. If one person’s interests dominate at the expense of others and you don’t want to limit their enthusiasm, creative solutions are needed. It may be possible to allow your sports fanatic to keep up his practice as much as ever but perhaps you don’t join in or stay to watch every time. This will clear some time to take other children to different activities or to follow your own interests. A change of venue for the sport can help: Lessons for one child at a multi-use community center may allow others in the family to pursue different activities in the same building at the same time. If these solutions aren’t possible, perhaps other relatives can take your child or watch him once a week, or you might consider an arrangement with other families at the community center. If all else fails, figure out whether there are non-essential sessions your child can miss to create space for others in the family to pursue their favored activities.

Getting outdoors for a fun activity, such as a game of soccer, is good for you and your children.

Swimming is an excellent form of exercise, and one enjoyed by most children. Find your nearest community center with a pool and dive in.

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