May 21, 2019

Fun 'n Games 'n Growth

Once upon a time, children roamed free: They would go from yard to yard, put together a game of baseball with the neighborhood kids and come back at dinnertime totally wiped out. Today, between school, homework, computers and TVs, and a fear of letting children out of sight, this kind of free play has mostly gone out the window. Gone with it is a whole spectrum of growth and development opportunities, from communication skills and physical health to innovation and creativity, all of which play big roles in setting up children for a positive future.

During the academic year, many youngsters are simply too busy to even play outside. When they do have downtime, many choose to spend it in front of a screen. “In the summertime, I literally have to pry the iPad out of my kids’ hands and make them go outside,” says Cara Wilder of Bozeman, Montana. “The first go-to when they have free time is the screen.”

Wilder, mom to Simon, 11, and Charlie, 12, has a hard job ahead of her, and she isn’t alone. As kids spend more and more time in front of screens—more than 53 hours a week for your typical 8-to-18 year old, according to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation survey—and less than ever outside, parents just about have to force their children to entertain themselves. That is, if the child has any free time. Most don’t.

“This September a lot of schools in the US aren’t even going to have recess anymore,” says Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, PhD, co-author of Play = Learning: How Play Motivates and Enhances Children's Cognitive and Social-Emotional Growth (Oxford University Press). “What we have found is that if kids have opportunities to have physical play, their attention is better and they learn more, so the last thing you should do is drop recess.” Aside from burning up some of their innate boundless energy, she says that recess offers an opportunity for kids to use their imagination, which promotes innovation and creativity, and develop communication skills that are valuable later on in life. 

Other Activities for 
Healthy Development

Yoga for Kids: Lisa Flynn, founder of ChildLight Yoga in Dover, New Hampshire, has created yoga classes for kids that offers strength and flexibility through exercise as well as meditation, songs and educational games. “Yoga for kids addresses mental, physical, brain, and spiritual development,” she says, “and they have so much fun.”

Toys and Games: Toys and games offer some structure to a kid’s playtime, but Hirsh-Pasek recommends that you make sure the items are 90% child and 10% toy. “Art, construction toys, Play-Doh—these give the child a chance to shape things and helps them to create their world, not just respond to it.” If kids just have to be online, brain games—many based on the latest neuroscience and psychology research—will let them have their fun while helping to sharpen attention, memory and reasoning abilities.

Reading and Music: Research has shown that reading and music are both good for developing cognitive skills. But instead of forcing a child to read from a book list or take piano lessons, try letting kids choose their own books or put on their own music show. “We have a way of turning these things that would be fun into work, and it makes them dislike it,” Gray says. “When it’s on their terms, they will enjoy it more. With music, if they enjoy it they’ll probably ask for formal training, making it their choice.” For preschoolers, reading with a parent is a fun way to improve language and vocabulary skills while spending valuable time with Mom or Dad.

Sleep: Want your child to absorb the information they learn in school? Help them stick to a regular sleep schedule. A recent study found that “irregular bedtimes could disrupt natural body rhythms and cause sleep deprivation, harming children's ability to acquire and retain information” (Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 7/13).

Allowing children to have some control over their time and choose exactly what they want to do with it (away from the screen), is an important part of childhood development, and a factor that most parents overlook in the hustle and bustle of daily life. As summer winds down, here are ways parents can help kids blossom outside of school.

Plan Downtime

As they drive from one child activity to another, parents these days are just about as busy as their kids. And they do it with the best intentions, hoping to give children opportunities to grow through activities such as music lessons and gymnastics. However, Hirsh-Pasek advises, “Don’t fill up your child’s entire schedule: Give them some time to themselves and let them fill it. They become the boss of their own time, they build forts and jump in leaves, and that’s the time we learn to become the captain of our own ship.”

And don’t forget that just like adults, children need time alone as well (even if they don’t always admit it). Before long a child will come up with something to do, whether it’s an imaginary game, building something or reading a book. “Social play is important, but when kids play on their own, that’s when they develop hobbies and get pensively involved in something that is their passion,” explains Peter Gray, PhD, author of Free to Learn (Basic Books). “This is how we create the inventors and the free thinkers.”

“If we want to cultivate the next Steve Jobs, we have to give kids the opportunity to experiment and explore in their own world,” Hirsh-Pasek adds.

Unstructure Exercise

Parents may feel that Little League practice constitutes playtime or free time. But according to Hirsh-Pasek, organized sports are turning kids into passive observers instead of leaders because kids are being told what to do by a coach instead of being allowed to solve their own problems. (And really, isn’t that what goes on in the classroom for most of the day?)

Instead, Gray recommends sending kids outside every once in a while with a baseball or a soccer ball, and letting them create their own game. “This is how they learn to get along with other people and solve their own problems, using critical thinking,” Gray says. “A lot of what they’re doing in a pickup game of baseball is negotiating and making up their own rules.”

These unstructured games can also lead to more exercise than most organized sports, according to Richard Louv, PhD, author of Last Child in the Woods (Algonquin Books). “The greatest increase in obesity just happens to be in the same decade as organized sports,” he explains. “In organized baseball, for instance, they aren’t running that much, and kids spend a lot of time on the bench eating potato chips.”

Get Into the Wild

Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder,” based on research that has shown that kids are spending less time in nature for various reasons, including the fact that, according a UN study, more than 50% of the world’s population lives in urban areas. “This expanding body of scientific evidence is showing that nature is important and helpful for physical and mental health, such as cognitive function and creativity,” Louv says. He also believes that this lack of exposure to the natural world may be linked to increases in obesity, attention deficit disorder and depression.

But how does it work? According to Louv, immersion in nature not only has a calming effect but also allows people to use different part of their brains. “When we are looking at computers, we are using directed attention,” he says. “The best antidote to balance this out is to use a different kind of attention, which is the fascination that occurs in the natural world.” Here, he says, we have one of the only opportunities to use all of our senses.

For those living in urban areas, nature can be hard to come by. Louv suggests that parents make an effort to bring kids to urban parks and to create nature at home, even if it’s just planting a window box.

Letting youngsters roam beyond the limits of the adult-organized activities doesn’t simply promote physical and mental development; it lets them get in touch with a deeper source of well-being.
“We spend most hours during the day trying to block out senses, using electronics,” Louv says. “To me that’s being less alive, and what parent wants their kids to be less alive?”


Cooking With Kids

One way to have fun and spend time together is to cook with your children. Family mealtime is especially important in a world where too many kids overload on fast-food burgers and pizza. As a result, child nutrition in the US is “abysmal,” says Kelly Dorfman, MS, LND, nutritionist in the Washington, DC area and author of Cure Your Child With Food (Workman). “This generation of children has the highest rate of food allergies, obesity, behavioral and emotional disorders, autoimmune disease and learning issues ever recorded.”

Part of the problem is a lack of time. According to a Cornell University study, working mothers spend about 3½ hours less per day than stay-at-home moms on grocery shopping and other food- and health-related tasks.

“Parents feel the time crunch when they get home, the pressure to crank out a healthy meal,” says Jill Castle, MS, RD, child nutrition consultant, blogger at Just the Right Byte ( and coauthor (with Maryann Jacobsen) of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School (Jossey-Bass/Wiley). “When you’re pressed for time, you come up with different strategies just to get children to eat—going out, ordering takeout, fixing foods they will eat.”

Nutrients Children Need

One advantage of eating homecooked meals is that it’s easier to make sure your kids get the nutrition they need. A balanced diet that focuses on lean protein, whole grains and fresh produce will meet their overall requirements. However, some nutrients are especially crucial at various stages of development, including some that are often lacking:

  • Calcium:Essential for bone formation, among other functions; many teenage girls don’t get all the calcium they need; calcium’s mineral partner, magnesium, is crucial for nerve and muscle function
  • Iron:Needed for oxygen transport and storage, which makes it necessary to proper red blood cell development; especially crucial during periods of rapid growth; girls start losing iron when their menstrual cycles begin
  • Omega-3:Needed for proper retinal and brain development during the first two years of life; helps fight inflammation and mood disorders; supports cardiovascular and skin health
  • Phytonutrients:Substances in fruits and vegetables that provide a variety of health benefits; Kelly Dorfman says less than 20% of children eat the recommended four servings of produce daily
  • Potassium: Vital for proper transmission of nerve impulses; high intake protects against effects of excessive sodium intake, including blood pressure increases
  • Vitamin D: Needed for calcium absoption, making it crucial to bone formation; linked to reduced risk of chronic disease; created in the skin during sun exposure, which is often reduced due to indoor living and sunscreen use; deficiencies are increasing, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics
  • Vitamin E: As an antioxidant, protects against free-radical damage; plays roles in neurological function, gene expression and enzyme activity; many toddlers and preschoolers get less-than-adequate amounts
  • Zinc:Crucial for proper growth and reproductive-system development; needed for proper functioning of taste and smell, as well as immune activity and wound healing
    High-quality multivitamins provide nutritional backup. Some include whole-food extracts and concentrates along with probiotics to support digestive healtlh, and are available in formulations tailored to every age range from infants to adolescents. —L.J.

As a result, “children have very little tolerance for what they don’t want so they end up eating pizza or pasta or chicken fingers every night,” Dorfman says.

According to Dorfman, the way out of this rut involves “parents owning their kitchens again. When you have meals together at home you can share information about nutrition, you can relax, you can control portions.”

Olivia Roszkowski, chef instructor at The Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City, teaches cooking to children. She finds that a good way to get kids’ attention is to offer them different meal and ingredient options. “When you show them delicious ways to make their own food, you always get a reaction, such as making your own applesauce or instead of getting processed yogurt, flavoring your own yogurt. I feel like offering them different alternatives always translates well, like showing them how to make your own kale chips.”

Roszkowski says youngsters also really enjoy hands-on learning. “I’ll demo something but I let them do everything. I teach them how to read recipes, knife skills, kitchen safety, how to plan and balance a meal.”

Dorfman agrees, saying, “We tend to give kids boring jobs, like setting the table, instead of more interesting jobs, like chopping and mixing. They’re dying to get their hands on that stuff.” However, she notes that “you have to have some tolerance for mess. When you cook with children it’s not going to be as efficient or neat as if you do it yourself.” (Dorfman suggests cooking with kids on weekends or Friday nights for a more relaxed experience.)

Kitchen proficiency is as important for boys as it is for girls. “Everybody needs to know how to cook, it’s a life skill,” says Castle.

Teaching kids about food and nutrition is just as important as showing them how to properly chop a carrot or make a marinara sauce. The best place to start is with meal planning. 

“If you involve them in the planning, it becomes an activity and they get more excited about the food,” Roszkowski says. 

“Let the child pick what you have for dinner one night a week,” suggests Dorfman. “I think getting kids involved lets them have some skin in the game. Let them know what the structure of the meal is—it has to include a salad or a whole grain, for example.” That involvement should extend to getting food into the house. “If you were going to take your kid apple picking or blueberry picking, they’re more likely to connect with the ingredients. Once kids have that connection, they take pride in what they make,” says Roszkowski.

No one said that a transition from chicken fingers to baby greens will always be smooth. “Studies show that kids need to try a new food 15 to 20 times before they accept it,” notes Castle. “So many parents just give up. The message is to keep trying.”

Cooking with kids can make meal preparation more than just a necessary chore. “Eating together as a family is less about the food but more about the togetherness. That connection really seems to be what benefits children,” says Castle. “I don’t know a parent alive who does not enjoy watching their children enjoy food.” —Lisa James