Child’s Play: How To Boost Kids’ Physical Activity

The adults I know tend to be nostalgic about our childhood. We roamed freely around the neighborhood: riding bikes, playing tag, skating, climbing, and swinging until the streetlights came on. We lament how kids these days can’t or don’t get the same quality outdoor exercise. And it’s worse now that the pandemic has turned the school day into a sedentary, computer-mediated experience. Kids actually need more physical activity than adults – a full hour every day, says the CDC. Yet according to the 2016 United States Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth, only 21% of American kids meet this guideline, earning a D minus! This trend plays out globally, producing negative consequences for mental and physical wellbeing. So if we want strong youth, we need new ways to increase kids’ physical activity. These 5 ways are child’s play…and they may be adult’s play, too.

wellbeing tip #41: model active play to increase kids' physical activity

Tip #41: Model Active Play

School-aged children’s schedules are so packed that they understandably crave downtime. For many kids, this means playing video games or watching TV. Mine retreats into a book. Most of us can relate as we wind down by scrolling social media feeds or binging on Netflix.  So if we want to increase our kids’ physical activity, let’s put down the phone/remote and model active play. 

Easy, fun options abound. We can take kids to swim at the city pool, play at the park or set up a hoop in the driveway and shoot baskets. Families can also get active together on weekends. We like to bike, and we can convince our daughter to hike if it involves a waterfall, boulders to climb on, or another kid-friendly feature. We also love spending a day exploring museums. Museums are so interactive now that kids won’t complain about all the walking. All this adds up to meeting kids’ physical activity requirements (and adults’, too).

To further increase kids’ physical activity level, it helps to be active role models. The Aspen Institute Project Play found that kids of active moms are two times more likely to be active themselves. So if they don’t actually see you being active, make sure you tell them—on the way to school or at bedtime—how glad you were that you went on that run, even though it was hard or it made you late for dinner.  It’s our job as parents to set a good example.

wellbeing tip #42: coach a kid's team to increase kids' physical activity

Tip #42: Coach a Kid’s Team

Playing team sports is a sure-fire way to ensure that kids’ physical activity happens consistently. From what I hear, running these teams needs ample help from parents and other caring adults. So if you’d like to get some benefit for your own wellbeing, try coaching. If the players are little, you don’t have to be a professional athlete to coach. Beginners just need just the basics in skills and knowledge. What’s perhaps even more important is character- and confidence building. And corralling the far-ranging ones to keep them focused and safe. Expertise does become more of a factor as they get older. 

Granted, coaching is not for everyone. But fear not! Team support takes diverse forms with varying degrees of commitment. Drive kids to games, host a pre-meet brunch, bring water and oranges to practice, cheer from the sidelines, counsel them about winning and losing gracefully, or any combination. And above all, have fun!

wellbeing tip #43: promote PE inclusivity to increase kids' physical activity

Tip #43: Promote PE Inclusivity

For kids to get optimal fitness at school, make sure the physical education program is inclusive. Mainstream PE can be gender biased, inaccessible to kids with physical and mental challenges, and cater to the dominant cultural group to the exclusion of others. Exclusion means that some kids’ physical activity level is even lower than the average of 21% meeting the national requirements. And that’s just shameful.

If your kid doesn’t love PE, look into inclusivity. There should be clear expectations that everyone participates and support for those who need it. Schools should be assessing the PE needs, interests, and practices of entire student population, not just the dominant group, and identifying gaps in their curriculum. Communications about school athletic programs and fitness events should exhibit diversity in abilities, gender, kids of color, etc. Staff and volunteers should reinforce this diversity so all participants can relate to a role model. Facilities should be accessible and welcoming to all students. While your focus might be your own kid, any step you take in this direction will contribute to increasing kids’ physical activity overall.

wellbeing tip #44: expand outdoor education to increase kids' physical activity

Tip #44: Expand Outdoor Education

I’m a big fan of outdoor education. When I lived at Srisa Asoke (a Buddhist intentional community in Thailand I studied), The 200-student boarding school regularly conducted lessons outside. I taught English and botany / horticulture simultaneously in the garden. Students were more likely to remember both the English and the science because they learned through experience in context. And because it was engaging and fun.

But since we’re talking about kids’ physical activity, I should point out that kids get way more exercise when they have space and fresh air to move around in rather than being confined to a desk inside a cramped classroom. We can improve their fitness even more by adding active learning activities outside, like scavenger hunts, big cardboard construction projects, gardening, field research, and so on. 

For those of you who are thinking, but wait, what about the weather? To that, I would channel my Scandinavian ancestors and say: there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing choices. 

wellbeing tip #45: donate to playgrounds to increase kids' physical activity

Tip #45: Donate to Playgrounds

When our daughter was little, the first thing my husband and I would do while on vacation was to locate the local playground. If we could tire out our active little monster, we’d all be happier. I must say, we’ve visited some amazing playgrounds, like the one at Alameda Park in Santa Barbara, CA designed to look like the mission and a similar volcano-themed playground on Kaua’i (a Hawaiian island).  We could just let our kiddo go and she’d run around for hours with other kids she just met, complaining when it was time to leave. What a wonderful thing to see kids play together with such joyous abandon. 

We felt fortunate to have access to playgrounds at home and while traveling. But because we have traveled to some out of the way places, we know that playgrounds are not always the norm. This is troubling. Without a safe place to play and just be kids, kids’ physical activity and overall wellbeing suffers.

To solve this problem, a number of organizations promote playgrounds and playspace equity. These include nonprofits like Kaboom!Carter’s Kids, and Playground Builders (which focuses on conflict zones) as well as for-profit companies like Play Mart, which donates playground equipment made out of recycled milk jugs. If you’d like to see kids playing all over the world, consider donating to or otherwise supporting this work.

Next Week…

The next 7 wellbeing tips will delve into how to Do Good through fitness. All the more motivation to get moving! See you then…

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