You probably already know that screen time interferes with vital physical activity. American children ages 8-18 spend 7 1/2 hours a day — over 50 hours a week — watching TV or plugged into online games or social media, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. And 17 percent of kids ages 2-19 are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While obesity is declining among preschool children, rates remain stubbornly high for older kids.
Experts say physically active kids have stronger muscles and bones and are less likely to become overweight or develop diabetes. They may also have lower blood pressure and a more positive outlook on life. So what can you do? Here are tips for getting your kids off their screens and onto their feet.
Take them to a park
Maryland abounds with parks. You don’t have to travel far to take the kids to a local spot with playground equipment and a field for Frisbee-tossing.
For a deeper immersion in nature, try visiting one of the state parks, which offer activities for kids ranging from canoe trips to nighttime “owl prowls” to ranger-led hikes.
“Each park has a list of things they’re doing to get children and families outside,” says Cynthia Etgen, education section chief for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Many parks are creating what the department calls "nature play spaces" — establishing groves of native plants where kids can play hide-and-seek, or arranging stumps and boulders for obstacle courses. In addition to providing exercise, these spaces teach kids to interact with and respect nature.
Get them climbing
Kids love to climb, and, with a little encouragement, they can develop confidence while staying in shape.
“A lot of kids come in and think they can’t do it, because all they do is watch TV and play videogames,” says Matt Elletson, a climbing enthusiast and director of a local climbing gym.
“Kids say it looks really hard; then they get on the wall and are amazed by what they can do,” he says.
The sport also helps develop concentration. “When you’re climbing, you can’t think of anything else, or you’ll fall off the wall,” Elletson adds.
Parents who learn the basics of safe climbing can buy ropes and gear and take their family to a wide variety of parks and recreation areas for climbing adventures, Elletson says.
Make it fun
To get kids motivated about exercise, you need to make it fun for them.
“A lot of times, adults exercise in a structured program — they have their reps, their sets, and their cardio. For kids, that doesn’t work,” says Jonathan Ross, an Annapolis trainer of kids and adults certified by the American Council on Exercise, the largest certifying body of fitness professionals.
Instead, parents should set up simple outdoor games. Start by sharing your own enthusiasm. If you love volleyball, teach it to your kids. If they’re too young, then start by tossing a beach ball with them.
If basketball is your thing, set up a hoop — or even hold up your arms and be the hoop. Engage the kids in friendly competition.
And be mindful of the language you use to describe exercise. If you make it sound like a chore, they’ll pick up on that and be turned off.
You can easily improvise games that everyone can play.
Last summer, Ross worked with a small group consisting of a 66-year-old grandfather, his grandson, a woman, and her son. He divided them into two teams and passed out orange traffic cones. One team’s goal was to set up as many cones as possible, and the other team’s goal was to knock down as many as possible. Then they switched roles.
“It was mayhem — intense and exhausting,” Ross says. “They ran as hard as they could for 30 seconds. They wouldn’t have done that without a game.”
Shared family activities create bonding and lead to lifelong positive memories.
To get kids away from the screen, don’t nag them. Instead, start a dialog and provide options. “Options give kids a sense of control,” Ross says.
Try to engage kids mentally, as well as physically. “The screen is so stimulating. Make the transition back to interacting with the outdoor world by putting a focus on it,” Ross says.
If you go on hikes together, zero in on the different types of trees or leaves one day, and look at clouds or count squirrels the next time.
“Before screens, kids would chase butterflies and lightning bugs and have water balloon fights. It’s about losing themselves in the experience,” Ross says. “Getting back to that is a powerful change.”
—Teresa Meek, Tribune Content Solutions