Help Your Kid Fall in Love With Movement
It's a relationship you want to kindle for their physical and mental health—and now you can, thanks to this age-appropriate plan.
If your child—we're talking any age from 2 to 17—doesn't move as much as you'd like them to, first, welcome to the club, and second, it's not your fault. Say that out loud: "It's not my fault".
Being plugged in has made life easier—but also more sedentary than ever, says Adam Rosante, a strength and conditioning specialist who works with children. Schools have also been squeezing out break times and PE classes over the past 20 years. And the pandemic has ramped up virtual activities while pressing pause on IRL group ones—the type of movement that kids tend to seek most, adds Rosante.
The Science Behind Our Screens
If gaming and watching videos were an Olympic sport, kids would be gold-medal athletes. "Screen time can release large amounts of dopamine from the brain", says Lisa Jo Gagliardi, a former regional school health coordinator in Michigan and founder of the consulting firm LJ Gagliardi: Building a Whole Child Toolbox. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for your body's pleasure and reward systems, and it's one reason it's so hard to walk away from screen time, which can be addiction-like, says Gagliardi.
But big sigh of relief: Physical activity also releases dopamine. The only difference is that movement takes more effort—your child has to change into play/PE kit, push themselves to chase a friend or ball, and maybe take a shower afterwards—than just sinking into the sofa with a remote. Sedentary pastimes might take less effort, but it doesn't mean they're more fun: Research comparing two-minute activity breaks with two minutes on the iPad found that kids actually enjoyed the activity more than the video games, according to lead study author Rebecca Hasson, PhD, an associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Michigan.
Kids just need more opportunities and encouragement to play and exercise. The more they get those, says Gagliardi, "the more their brains will recognise the feel-good effects".
The Power of Parental Influence
Not to freak you out or anything, but the example you set can make or break your mini-me's relationship with movement for years to come, says Diana Cutaia, the founder of Coaching Peace Consulting, who works with Nike's Social and Community Impact team as well as various school districts. "Every time you talk about activity, even if it's just about your own training, it's an opportunity for your children to either feel enthusiastic about or turned off by fitness", she says. That's because children tend to develop opinions based on the words and actions of those around them, starting with their parents.
To make Mum/Dad life easier on you, here's a snapshot of what to do—and what not to do.
Do: Focus on the positives of exercise.
Whenever you're gearing up for or coming back from a workout, use language that paints physical activity as something that brings you joy, says Cutaia. Talk about how your morning jog energises you or how lifting weights makes you feel strong, and your kids may be likelier to want to experience those feel-good effects of fitness, explains Hasson.
Don't: Force them into a workout.
If children feel pressured and not in control of their exercise choices, they're probably going to fight you on moving, suggests research in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Taking the decision-making away from a kid inhibits them from seeing themselves actually carrying out the act. Invite them for an hour of movement each day (which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, less than 25 percent of kids between the ages of 6 and 17 actually get).
Putting the Fun in Fundamentals
While there's no one-size-fits-all solution, here are some universal guidelines that can entice kids to move more, move better and develop a sustainably healthy lifestyle. If you struggle to find the time, resources or energy to make the below happen, Rosante suggests setting up active play dates with a neighbour or friend so you can lean on each other on different days.
Ages 2–5: Build the Base
Because youngsters aren't yet skilled movers, they use sensory information—what they see, hear, touch, smell and taste—to learn to get around, says Hasson. Which is why you should focus their active time around motor skill development, like walking, running, kicking, throwing and climbing, she says, and make it feel like a game. Try having them toss around a bean bag or play a game of tig to form their movement foundation.
Ages 6–9: Think Short and Sweet
Your kiddo's attention span is pretty short, about 2 to 3 minutes per year of age, says Hasson. Luckily, children at this age naturally operate on interval mode, she says, so create fun activities involving quick and intermittent movement, like a sudden dance-off or short relay race.
Skill-wise, you want to focus on coordination. "Balance beams—real or imaginary—are a great tool", says Rosante, who likes to have kids play a game of hot lava, where they walk across a beam or designated line, pick up a ball and walk back, all while imagining lava running under and next to them. Whatever you choose, keep it bite-size (remember that whole attention span thing).
Ages 10–13: Call in a Crew
As students move into secondary school, specifically years 6 and 7, research shows physical activity typically nosedives by 50 percent. This is likely because there's no more playtime, and kids who believe physical activity isn't their strong suit start opting out. Plus, tweens and first-year teens tend to be all about whatever their friends are doing, which often involves, yep, a device.
Make that social thing work to your advantage, says Rosante. Plan a friend-filled game of football or basketball. Design a team-based obstacle course in the garden. Or, if your kid is tied to the iPad watching, say, the Harry Potter films, bring the wizarding world to life by playing your own version of quidditch outside, suggests Rosante.
Ages 14+: Say Yes to Sports
Most teens don't want to be told what to do, and they're less likely than younger kids to get excited about simple games, says Rosante. That's where garden sports, family or neighbourhood races, and hobbies like dance or karate come in. Find out what your kid is genuinely into and how you can best turn it into a form of fun and entertaining movement, whether that means having them take lessons or just goofing around with you outside, he says.
It's never too late to get your child involved in an extracurricular activity, so if they idolise LeBron or want to dye their hair like Megan Rapinoe, encourage them to pick up that athlete's sport, says Rosante. If they're against the idea or access is an issue, try to come up with one thing you can do today to help your child foster a love connection with movement, he adds. Maybe that's buying a used goal net or asking if they can teach you their favourite dance on TikTok (it's screen-based but still active, explains Hasson … sneaky move!).
With a little trial and error, hopefully you can join a new club soon: Proud Parent of a Healthy, Active Kiddo.
Words: Rozalynn Frazier
Illustration: Kezia Gabriella