My daughter took off her sparkly, strappy ballet flats and replaced them with a set of blue and grey sneakers. “I forgot! It’s a gym day. I can wear these fancy shoes on music or art days.”
My children both attend a public school where physical education is only offered every third day. They are given two outdoor recesses, each lasting 15 minutes. In a typical, seven hour school day, my children receive only 30 minutes of unstructured exercise.
It seems as though adults have managed to engineer opportunities for physical activity out of daily life, and to such measure that children can spend entire weeks hardly moving at all. We have spent time and energy exacerbating the risks of the world, focusing on the miniscule possibilities of kidnapping should we let them walk to the playground or ride their bikes to class, rather than the very real risks of obesity and sedentary life. It is not safer for children to be seated indoors, in front of a screen, nor is it better for their academic development.
Those who can afford the expense enroll children in organized teams and programs, where adults enforce the rules and control the playing time. Well intended parents struggle to find the “right” sport for their child, hoping the youngster will demonstrate some innate ability. The neighborhood pick-up games have given way to costly teams where the goals have less to do with recreation and fun, and more to do with long-term athletic development.
I think it’s time to bring sports back home.
Don’t get me wrong: I am a competitive athlete. Much of my life is built around structured training and racing, commitments to my team and, yes, winning. Moreover, I believe that organized athletics impart some valuable lessons about teamwork, sportsmanship, self-discipline and loss.
Still, it’s important to recognize that children are not miniature adults. They're different physical and emotionally. While I can, at 36, manage intense pressure and training schedules without burn-out or injury, I cannot expect the same of my 8- and 6-year-old kids at home.
Kids are supposed to get 60 minutes of activity every day, with most of that activity in an aerobic zone. How can parents make that happen without relying on the school or placing their child in an organized athletic program?
1. Start early.
When exercise is ingrained in daily life from an early age, kids grow to see it as innate. My own children know that we won’t be driving the car to run errands in close proximity to our home, and expect to walk or ride their bikes. They have always had strict limits on screen time, so it’s never a battle to turn off the electronic devices.
2. When time is constrained, break activity into 15 minute chunks.
If you can’t get out for an hour-long game of freeze tag or arrange for a 60 minute bike ride or trip to the pool, try fitting in 15 minutes in the morning, and then another 15 minutes before dinner and after dinner. When taken in concert with the activity provided during the school day, it’s likely your child will hit the target.
3. Send your kids outside with a ball, jump rope, scooter, pogo stick…
Simply tossing your child out the front door only goes so far. When a child heads outside with an item in hand, however, the implication is clear and it provides enough structure and direction to get them engaged in exercise in the first place. It’s likely other kids in the neighborhood will appear, as well.
4. Think beyond the ball.
Swimming, paddling, canoeing, dance, rock climbing, hiking and cycling are all great ways to get kids moving. Don’t get locked in to thinking of “sports” in a purely traditional sense. Take advantage of your child’s own interests and curiosities, and don’t be afraid to try new approaches to exercise.
My 6-year-old came home the other day and told me she wanted to run the Bolder Boulder. I can only assume she overheard another child at school discussing the race. Regardless, I am not a runner, nor do I have any deep-seated desire to take up the sport. I am, however, 100% about encouraging my kids to be active, and supporting them when they demonstrate initiative.
So, with that in mind, I have gotten up at 5:30 a.m. three times every week since this proclamation to do a run at her pace. Parents set the tone, and they cannot encourage exercise if they refuse to be active themselves. It has to be a family effort.
When was the last time your kids ran around just for the fun of it? There are a lot of reasons children become obese, but no mix of fixes will do us any good if we don’t find ways to get our children moving, and to make exercise available to all children.
Professional cyclist racing with Team Novo Nordisk, Becky is a mom of two and active proponent of better nutrition in schools who lives with her family in Longmont, CO.
Photo: Becky's husband and daughter playing tag