The news is full of reports about childhood obesity and sedentary children with their bottoms glued to couch cushions and their eyes trained on electronic screens.
But for me right now, with a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old, the reality is more like children bouncing off the walls and forcing me to get off my bottom to run around the yard with them. Young children are full of energy and can't help but want to master their new motor skills. The trick is harnessing and keeping that joy for movement and exercise.
Here's what we're hoping works:
Get yourself moving.
This is easier for my husband, who runs marathons, than for me. I would much rather sit with a good book than toss a ball. I never have been an athlete. My 4-year-old son, who is becoming quite a baseball player, informed me the other day that I needed to work on my throwing. He wasn't wrong. But the point here is that I was out there with the boys, running and throwing and catching. I used to pretend to be sick to get out of gym class, but now I'm out on the basketball court pretending to know how to dribble. It's worth looking foolish to let my boys know that everyone should get their bodies moving – and to hear their giggles whether I make or miss a shot.
Get them moving.
As I said, my husband sets an even better example for our boys. He takes them in the jogging stroller on his runs, and they see him stretching and doing sit-ups and push-ups every night. Because they want to be like their daddy, both boys will run through their versions of his exercises. The oldest has graduated from the stroller to actually running with or riding his bike alongside my husband during his post-run cool-down. Both boys have run kids' races and we have had each of them enrolled in swimming and other activities, as well as our usual backyard playtime.
My kids watch TV. Some Sunday afternoons or weekday evenings, we're all tired and cranky and I need to get something done and then the cartoons come on. But most of the time it's off. While I'm fixing dinner, I send the boys outside, or a let them chase the dog around the living room. On weekends, we go to parks or visit the beach (we live in Florida). We take walks or play catch. If I set them in front of the TV, they're usually doing flips off the couch within minutes anyway, so instead of fighting their energy, I try to use it and burn it off.
Have the equipment.
We have a basket of balls in the garage, another one in the playroom, and still another one in the backyard. We have bats and hula hoops, bikes and racquets. We have a sandbox in the backyard and a basketball hoop in our driveway. My boys have the usual mix of noisy plastic toys, too, but it's balls they love the most – which is fine with me, because it's those simple toys that get them moving. Balls and other sporting equipment is cheaper than electronics--and you can often pick it up at yard sales or children's resale shops, too.
You don't need to lecture your preschooler on the dangers of obesity or rail on your teenager about the necessity to exercise. But starting at an early age, you should give your child basic information about their body. Our boys, for example, know that fruits and vegetables help their bodies grow and running and exercise help make their bodies strong. Our 4-year-old is starting to learn that if he wants to be really good at something – whether it's learning his letters or learning to bat or pitch – then he needs to practice every day. And because he knows that, he's the one asking to go outside before dinner to play catch and fetching stacks of books to read before bed.
It wasn't until I was writing this that I realized how much praise we give the kids when they throw or run or turn a somersault and how little they get from us when they're watching TV or playing with one of their toy computers. It's probably no wonder that's what want to do. In all seriousness, though, we try to encourage them to develop their bodies just like their minds. We gush over them when they learn their ABCs or figure out how to work a tough puzzle, and we exclaim when they learn to toss a ball straight or figure out how to climb the tallest ladder at the park.
I've never been an athlete. It wasn't important in my family and I had enough people tell me enough times that I wasn't good at it, that I just gave up. Eventually, I stopped running on the playground and started playing sick in gym class. My kids are the ones who taught me to get my body moving again, and I hope to return the gift by teaching them to never let their bodies stop moving.
What's your favorite way to burn off your kids' energy?
Hillary Copsey is a newspaper features editor in Florida with experience writing about everything from population trends to health-care issues. As the mother of two boys, she also is versed in searching for daycares, cooking healthy dinners on the fly and playing with trucks. She co-writes the blog Not raising brats. She writes about parenting for dailySpark and BabyFit.com.
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