Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Healthier Children Through Play

There are words of gloom and doom all over the media these days: Our children are out of shape, lazy,  fat, and developing adult lifestyle-related illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes. And, what is even more frightening, for the first time, this new generation may actually have a shorter lifespan than that of the generation before. Is it all this serious? Is this just a Chicken Little "the sky is falling" subject? Unfortunately, the answer is, yes, it is this serious and no, it's not a Chicken Little scenario.

According to the Nemours Foundation, one out of three American children are overweight or obese. In Canada, it's estimated that 26% of children are overweight or obese. This isn't just a few children. This is millions of children in North America whose health is at risk.

So, what is causing the problem? Why are so many of our children so overweight? Unfortunately, it's not just one thing. Of course, diet is a major issue - generally children who eat well-balanced and healthy portions of meals don't have a weight issue. But our society pushes high calorie, high fat, processed foods because everything has to be done fast, be ready, and convenient. And these are generally not the health choices. The other main culprit for the child obesity problem is lack of exercise. If you don't exercise, use your body, you can't burn off excess calories. Not only will the weight come on, the muscles won't get strong and the whole body suffers.

Is There Time for Play?

"But there's no time for play," you may say. Between the children being at school (sometimes with rather long commutes), at daycare, at music lessons, doing their homework, and so on, where will they find the time to be active?

It used to be that children had plenty of active time at school. Between the recesses in the morning (and sometimes afternoon), plus the play period after lunch, children had the opportunity to run around the school yard, play tag, toss a ball, and just be free to have fun. Unfortunately though, recesses are being cut back in some schools. There's even talk of eliminating them in some places. In addition, many schools use recess as a punishment. If a student doesn't behave or hasn't done her homework, for example, recess is taken away - effectively eliminating any chance the child has for burning off any energy and experiencing social interaction beyond that of inside classes.

Playing at home outside after school isn't an option for many children. They either live in parts of the city where they can't safely play unsupervised; they're in daycare or after school care, so not at home; or there isn't anyone else around to play with them because either the neighborhood children are not allowed the freedom to play outside or they are themselves in daycare.

Another opportunity for exercise used to be from getting to and from school. Children would walk back and forth or ride their bikes. That's not a common sight these days. Parents are often seen driving their children to school even if they only live a few blocks away. For some parents, it is a matter of convenience - they're dropping off their children at school while on the way to work, but other parents don't want to walk (or bike) with their children and they certainly don't trust their children to go alone. The result: no exercise for either child or parent.

Finding the Time for Play

It may seem rather simplistic to say that all we need to do is find the time for children to play, but it could be as simple as that. However, finding the time itself isn't always the easy part. In order for each family to decide that they need to exercise more, allow their children more freedom in what they play and when, the family has to find out what is preventing the play time. If it's because the children have too much homework, this is an issue that should be brought up to the school. If it's lack of space, you may have to look for available play space. If it's time, then scheduling play time, free time, needs to become a priority. Our children are not as healthy as they should be and allowing them to play, to run, to enjoy being children is actually a good way to improve their health. Isn't it worth the investment?

To read about games that we used to play as children and some blog posts and article on playing, visit