Our sedentary lifestyle in the United States is literally killing our children. As a society we need to begin focusing on the importance of play. With autoimmune diseases, obesity, heart disease, and many other deadly medical issues on the rise we need to come up with a solution for the epidemic currently plaguing America. No longer do children play outdoors from sun up to sun down at any age, during any stage of life, or during any season. Gone are the days where children would spend summers on their bikes and climbing trees, or winters ice-skating, having snowball fights, and sledding down hills on trashcan lids. Our society is evolving per se… Evolving into a nation of thumbs with our eyeballs constantly glued to a screen and the extent of our human interaction being over social media with what should be considered the equivalent of imaginary friends.
As parents we see it, we hear it, we read about it, and yet we hand our children a cell phone or tablet at every turn in order to get some peace and quiet ourselves. In restaurants, at playgrounds even, you are sure to see a child staring at a screen rather than interacting with the world around them.
And our schools are no better. The importance of play is literally being ignored. In this day and age the best schools are those considered to be “one on one” tech schools meaning they have a tablet or computer for every child in the school. Many of these schools are assigning laptops to children for the entire year which they are responsible for carting back-and-forth from school in order to get their work done. No longer are the public schools teaching cursive in any grade, handwriting skills and the fine motor skills that come along with it are going by the wayside as all assignments and testing are done on a computer.
From Baby Einstein to ABC Mouse, screens are being introduced earlier and earlier to our developing children even though we have read the research and are well aware of the importance of play, and as a parent have likely experienced the tantrums and meltdowns that occur because of this constant screen time. Not only do the screens negatively affect our children’s brains and eyesight, they literally cause stress and anxiety to the point where when the screen time is removed, the child does not know how to function properly among real, living people.
Further the extended use of screens has led to the decline in childhood play, imaginative play, outdoor play, and physical activity. With schools no longer offering more than 20 minutes of recess a day and most of our children “relaxing” indoors after school their physical activity has significantly lessened leading to an array of health problems. As parents we need to start forcing more physical play. We need to stand up and shout until we are heard, our kids need more time outdoors!
According to a new study, toddlers need at least three hours of physical activity a day. The level of intensity can vary but at least one hour should be “energetic" play. The thing is this is not something we don’t already know. As parents we know that our children are happier, healthier, and sleep better when they have spent a day outdoors rather than inside, sedentary, or in front of a screen. There is no surprise here, the issue is not what our children’s bodies really need… The issue is what we as parents are going to do about it.
The same study suggests that babies need a minimum of 30 minutes a day of tummy time in order to develop healthy back and neck muscles. Unfortunately, just as with our older children, our babies are being "taught" unhealthy habits from birth.
We are leaving babies in car seats and ergonomically designed swings and seats for longer than they should be. Instead of putting babies on the floor, on their bellies, we are so concerned with germs, sleep patterns, and convenience, we are inhibiting their growth and development. Babies and toddlers should not be in a sitting position or restrained for more than 1 hour at a time.
The failure to provide adequate tummy time is evident in the rise in flat head syndrome also known as plagiocephaly in our babies over the last few decades. In the past, not only were babies sleeping on their bellies which is considered a less static position than sleeping on their backs, parents did not have every modern day convenience from infant seats with wheels to Bluetooth enabled swings. Pediatricians did not have to force tummy time because children were laid down on the floor or even in a crib on their bellies on a regular basis allowing for the proper use and development of their back, neck, and full body musculature.
Our children develop their habits from the time they are little. We are responsible for helping them develop healthy and age-appropriate behaviors that will translate into how they function and interact with the world later on. When we talk about habits parents are so frequently concerned with teaching their children to say please and thank you yet ignore the “physical health” habits that will lead to a more productive lifestyle. If we continue allowing our children to eat junk food while playing on an iPad, we cannot be surprised when their pediatrician announces their obesity, when they are bullied at school for being fat, or when their basic math and language skills dissipate. There is a strong correlation between physical health, mental health, and education.
Some ideas for getting everyone active include:
- Plan to have a screen-free summer for the kids. Kick it back old school with books, crafts, and plenty of outdoor play.
- Go for a family walk around the neighborhood every night after dinner. Not only will everyone get some exercise and better digest their food, but you will also likely make a few new friends.
- Have a dance party in the living room. Kids don’t need the Xbox or Wii motion-sensor games to move. Turn on some of mom and dad‘s favorite tunes and encourage everyone to boogie together. The higher the intensity, the better!
- Spend weekends outdoors. Head to the soccer fields, the playground, the beach, or the closest national park for a nature hike. Not only are these experiences educational, they promote physical health, and invaluable family time.
A mere 20 minutes outdoors a day combined with possibly an hour of extracurricular sports practice after school is the maximum physical activity most children are acquiring by elementary school age these days. These children should also be getting at least 3-4 hours of physical activity which simply isn’t happening. The bottom line is that this is bad for our kids health - they are getting fat, they are lacking in vitamin D, and they are being diagnosed as depressed, hyperactive, or suffering from mood disorders at an alarming rate.
As parents we need to take a stand and set an example. We need to take away the screens from our children and ourselves. We need to make our kids go out to play! So forget the gym time, forget the weekend work that we have all become so accustomed to and get outside with your kids because the future and health of our nation's children literally depend on it.
For more on why outdoor play is so important to your child's development check out Play to Increase Your Child's Upper Body Strength and Why it Matters.
Photo Credits: Kristin dePaula