By Kim Robson
There certainly has been a lot of talk and media attention recently about the childhood “obesity epidemic.” We’re finding ways to cut back on the amount of sugar and processed foods our kids eat. Kids should be eating healthy foods primarily anyway, with the occasional candy as a special treat, but candy and soda have been around for a long time. Why are so many kids nowadays fighting their weight?
The answer, of course, is exercise. Kids’ activity levels have plummeted in the past couple of decades. They have social media to keep track of on their smart phones and tablets. They have to spend hours playing video games every day if they expect to get to the 29th level of World of Warcraft. They have countless television shows and movies geared especially for their impressionable young minds. Candy commercials shown during kids’ TV programming don’t help. Even with the young adult books like the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series that are so popular now — as wonderful as they have been to get kids jazzed about reading — it’s still a sedentary activity.
Part of the problem is “helicopter parents.” These are parents who can’t let their children out of sight for any length of time for fear of a worst-case scenario. Their kids are driven everywhere instead of walking or riding a bike. I realize it’s a dangerous world out there, but insulating our children from every possible danger ends up crippling them later in life. A blog I like called Free Range Kids promotes raising smart, self-reliant kids who haven’t been infantilized by their parents or society. The first post I saw was from a woman who remembered how much fun it was to build snow forts in the winter. She sent her two kids out after a snowstorm to do just that. She checked on them a while later, and they’d done nothing more than mope around outside, waiting to come back in. “We don’t know what to do,” they said. Kids today have become so protected and manipulated that they literally don’t know how to play by themselves outside or to use their imaginations.
Another problem comes from schools reducing or eliminating recess and sports programs. Kids aren’t designed to sit still at a desk for seven hours a day. Recess is very important for blowing off steam and getting fresh air and a little exercise. Unfortunately, recess and sports are often the first programs to go in budget cutbacks. “Worst-first” thinking has led to the removal of much of the equipment we used to play with. In some districts, the paranoia has led to ridiculous policies like “no running at recess because someone might fall down.” No joke.
After school and team programs like the NFL’s Play 60 are great alternatives for kids. When I was a kid, I played tennis, then immersed myself in the world of figure skating for eight years, and then was on the Varsity track and field team in high school. I worked out so much that I couldn’t get enough food in me. Food is not the problem.
Let your child’s school district know that sports and recess are just as important for development as academics are. When I was a kid, we had all sorts of equipment to choose from. In addition to swings, slides, pull-up bars, a tetherball, and monkey bars, we had pogo sticks, jumping rope, rubber balls, flag football, hopscotch, Red Rover, hula hoops, Frisbees, and a big sand pile. Unfortunately, many of those things are gone from today’s playgrounds.
You don’t need an expensive after school sports program to get your kids active. In the winter, they can go ice skating, build snow forts, snow caves and snowmen, and have snowball fights. Mere inclement weather shouldn’t be an excuse for them to stay inside. They aren’t made of sugar and they won’t melt.
Some good ideas for summer could include cardboard boxes and duct tape for fort building, tires and traffic cones for obstacle courses, sidewalk chalk for hopscotch, trees for climbing, hide-and-seek, rope jumping, tag, bicycling, kite flying, Tarzan-style rope swings, marbles, hanging rings, yo-yos, and ball games. A boom box can help them get moving. Don’t over direct or hover. Once kids realize they are free to play and be themselves, they’ll figure out what they love. They’ll be having so much fun that the exercise they get won’t even be in their minds.