ST LOUIS – Summer vacation used to mean late nights playing flashlight tag with your friends, riding bikes all over your neighborhood and catching balls with your buddies. Times have changed. Fear keeps kids close to home, and both the hot sun and lure of video games keep them inside.
That may mean safety, but it doesn’t mean health. “It’s so important to keep these kids active in the summer,” says Gina Pona, a trainer and owner of Kid-Fit, a company that helps churches and schools set up fitness programs for kids. “Kids really have a tendency to become couch potatoes when school is out, but parents can’t let that happen.”
Here’s a guide to keeping your kids healthy and active this summer.
Step 1: Limit screen time
While TV, video games and computers do have their benefits, too much screen time is detrimental to your kids’ health.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids under age 2 have no screen time, and that kids older than 2 watch no more than one to two hours a day of quality programming.
“Especially with the computers and MySpace, it seems kids want to be inside more often,” says Sherri Brown, fitness director of the Downtown-Marquette YMCA.
“What we’ve found is that most would choose something else if you offer them an alternative,” says Paul Jenkins, a physical therapist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
Step 2: Buy a few basics
You don’t have to outfit a whole home gym, but purchasing a few active toys for your kids will give them incentive to move. Pona recommends a few balls (a basketball, soccer ball, even a beach ball), a jump rope and, if you can afford it, a bike.
“These toys encourage a kid to play outside; you can’t play basketball inside,” Pona says.
Step 3: Get your kids outside
While indoor exercise is certainly possible, kids are much more likely to move in the great outdoors. To get the kids out of the house, you may have to help, even on weekdays when you get off work.
“Sometimes I stop at the park with my child,” says Brown, mom to a 2-year-old. “It’s like the gym theory: You have to do it before you get home and don’t want to get back out.”
Pona even suggests that parents use a timer or a stopwatch and treat playing outdoors as a reward. “You could say, ‘You took out the trash, now you can play outside for 30 minutes.’ “
Step 4: Give them things to do
The challenge for these kids, Jenkins says, is finding something that’s available to them. That’s why buying the items in Step 2 was so important. But if you put a little thought into it, you can make fitness exciting for your kids. Brown suggests a scavenger hunt. “At each station, in addition to the next clue, have an exercise the children need to complete before continuing. It could be 25 jumping jacks, 10 push-ups, run one lap around the yard, jump rope for 30 seconds, hula hoop for one minute, frog hop to the next station. The options are endless.”
Step 5: Enroll them in an activity
Brown says the planned activity doesn’t have to be athletics-oriented. “Try dance, karate, swimming – just get a set day and time you are going to do something that forces you to do that every week.”
The YMCA offers everything from yoga to boot camp for kids, and you can find a variety of activities at community centers and community colleges.
Step 6: Try a fitness calendar
Sit with your child and find what activities he or she likes or wants to try, says Brown. Then pick two days each week of summer vacation to try that activity. For example, one week it could be 30 minutes of shooting hoops at the basketball courts on Tuesday and 30 minutes of hiking trails at Castlewood State Park on Thursday. “This could easily be a family event and modified for all ages,” Brown says.
Step 7: Model good behavior
“The first thing we try to tell people is to lead by example,” Jenkins says. “Kids want to follow their parents’ lead. So that’s an easy way to inspire them.” You can go biking together as a family on the weekends, or go for a nature hike.