Summer Fitness Balance for Young Children

Does the summer heat drive you indoors to the comfort of air conditioning, with hours of movies and games near your couch?  Or does your family soak up the outdoors with all of its opportunities for summer sports?  It's easy to get invested in one extreme or the other.  I recently asked about finding a healthy balance for families, especially those of us with younger children.

“The best way for kids to get off the couch is for the parents to get off the couch,” says health and fitness specialist Duston Morris, PhD, MS, CTRS, ACE-CPT, USAT.  He's recently joined the faculty of the Health Sciences Department at the University of Central Arkansas, where he studies topics like childhood obesity.  He stresses that parents should be constantly mindful of how our children emulate us.  If we make time to get up and go outdoors, they'll want to spend time outdoors too.  A similar message comes from the First Lady's Let's Move campaign that encourages families to make sure children spend at least an hour of daily physical activity.

And then there's the other extreme.  Admit it, we've all at least entertained the passing thought that perhaps our child who threw a baseball with precision or showed early interest in golf might be an athletic prodigy.  So, summer offers the chance for camps and workshops and extra lessons in a specific sport.  Morris cautions against intense training in one sport until a child has reach at least 7 or 8 years of age.  And then, only if the enthusiasm about that sport is truly child-directed.

Morris says it's okay to introduce a variety of sports and skills to young children, but that intensity in one sport can be harmful.  For instance, the set of muscles and motions involved in learning to play baseball are different than those used in cycling or basketball.  Growing bodies need a balanced approach to fitness.  In the debate about whether early or late specialization is best for child athletes, Morris sides with late specialization.  One early sport that he admits all children can benefit from is gymnastics, because of the total body movement.  However, a typical child simply playing outdoors and showing an interest in developmentally appropriate games is probably working muscles and developing motor skills in a perfect balance.

“Children are professional players.  They’re born to learn through play,” says Morris.  “The unstructured play is as important as the structured play.  From a physiological and sociological point of view, sometimes unstructured creates a better balance.”  Morris recommends that for every hour of structured play like sports camp or lessons, parents offer another hour of outdoor free time, where kids can do what comes naturally.  Aside from the physical fitness, children need to learn skills like cooperation and problem-solving.  They also need a healthy amount of play time with parents, which reminds us that we shouldn't simply use summer camps as babysitters.  In addition to his academic work, Morris is involved with 3 Sport Fitness and the Alive with Mission Me student curriculum program.  He recently blogged about being his own child's hero.

I asked Mother Goose organizer Lori Murphree if she also had tips for parents about what kids need to be doing in the summer.  She leads a structured play group for parents with very young children.  But even she thinks kids should get some time to simply run free.  “Maybe because I grew up in a rural farming community, I'm a firm believer in an untouched, open-wide summer.   Going swimming, riding big wheels in the driveway, meeting friends for a picnic at a playground, planting things and taking care of them, painting and coloring outside, making ice cream, going to the library.”

How are you finding a fitness and play balance for your family this summer?  We'll post your comments below.

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