One of my good blogger friends Annie from PhD in Parenting is running a Carnival of Play theme on her blog this month. What a fantastic idea! I decided to write this post as a part of her carnival to highlight the importance of both play and good nutrition on overall growth of toddlers.
We have all heard about rising rates of childhood obesity. Kids today are eating more junk food, consuming more sugary drinks and spending a lot of time in front of the TV or playing computer games. To some, this lifestyle might already fit the definition of “play” because it is so much fun and kids don’t seem to complain about it. There are no immediate health problems and parents can find time to do their own thing if their kids are happy and busy with TV or computers. So what could be wrong? And as far as obesity is concerned, if the child is not really fat and his friends are about the same, who cares?
There is enough evidence from scientific research and surveys that the overall health of our children today is in a state of decline. Childhood obesity is real; BMI’s are rising; attention spans are shortening and immune systems are weakening. What I find most worrisome is that there are now reports of increasing rates of Type II diabetes in children as young as 8 years old. Diseases like this don’t happen overnight; they slowly creep up on you. On a day-to-day basis, a lifestyle of poor nutrition and no physical play may seem ok, but it can lead to serious health problems in the long run.
Benefits of play
This is very important especially in the early years of life. Most of the current debate is focused on calcium and vitamin D deficiency when it comes to healthy bone growth. But physical play has an important role in growing strong bones. The Iowa Bone Development Study concluded that various forms of physical activity, particularly vigorous physical activity, plays a critical role in early childhood bone development well ahead of reaching peak bone mass.
Muscle and joint development
Physical activity involving running, jumping and climbing builds strength in the muscles and joints as they try to support the body weight. It does not have to be a power workout for the strength to build; the good thing about physical activity is that even a small amount adds to itself. In fact it is better to go slow and watch your child carefully as she attempts increasingly difficult tasks in the playground. Over the long run you will notice a clear increase in upper body strength and legs.
Hand-eye coordination, balancing and making sense of physical forces
By engaging in physical activity, children begin to develop an intuitive sense of how the physical forces work. The begin to understand and feel how their bodies respond to gravity (jumping), friction (sliding), rotation (swinging), motion of all kinds and action-reaction of push-pull. It helps them to make sense of the physical world so they can anticipate the reaction to their actions.
Just like adults, children also benefit from the benefits of elevated heart rates during sustained physical activity. The heart is also a big muscle, which gets stronger when it is forced to pump blood through the body at a faster rate during physical play. Lungs are also hard at work which increases their capacity of providing oxygen to the blood at faster rates. The entire circulation system benefits from physical work. The American Heart Association has some great tips for raising heart-healthy active children.
Creativity and mental growth
Although it may not seem so at first, physical activity also builds mental agility and creative thinking. As I watch my twins play in the park, I am constantly amazed by the games they invent around the simple equipment (slides, swings, tunnels, monkey bars etc). Sometimes we play “train” and run around under the big slide making all kinds of train noises. At home we play the “tunnel” in which I stand with my feet apart and they come running through the space pretending to be a truck or a train. It is a lot of fun, and the good thing is that it does not require any fancy toys. Just pure imagination and a willingness to indulge them in whatever gives them a good “workout”.
Risk taking, team work, leadership
As children grow and engage in team sports, they begin to develop a sense of teamwork and leadership. These two qualities are critical for their future success in life. They have to learn the rules of the game and figure out what is acceptable and not acceptable. It promotes a drive to achieve success, builds confidence and increase their self worth if they finish a task successfully. No wonder, sports are a big part of our popular culture.
They also develop a sense of risk and an ability to decide their action which will keep them safe. I have been amazed to watch my son pause at the top of a tall slide before coming down. I don’t see fear in his eyes; but clearly his mind is doing a quick calculation to figure out if he should really take the plunge or not. He feels comforted when he can see me waiting for him at the bottom and lets himself go!
Nutritional needs of an active child
Physical activity burns calories. It is important to make sure your child is well fed before taking him to the park. Also pack a healthy, nutritious snack after he is done. Handing out a no-sugar added fruit juice is ok if not overdone during the rest of the day. One of our favorites snacks is from Earth’s Best, which goes very well after a visit to the park. We also give organic milk and string cheese sometimes. Overall, active children need more calories during the day according to the following data from MyPyramid.gov:
Play is good for Mom and Dad too
Sometimes it may seem overwhelming to run after energetic toddlers all the time. Usually we are pretty tired when we return home from work, but playing with my twins is a lot of fun. It gives me a chance to unwind and not think about deadlines at work or the all-too-important meeting the next day. We simply run around, get silly and make up all sorts of games! Even if it is for a short period of time, it is a great bonding experience for otherwise busy parents.
Don’t ignore safety
Slips, trips and falls are the major hazards of physical activity. Even for adults, these 3 risks are responsible for a large number of injuries each year. Keeping a watchful eye on children without making them fearful while playing is very important. Expect the unexpected and stay close. Make sure children have comfortable clothing and good shoes on. And no cell phones or Blackberrys!
Summing it all up
For long-term healthy growth of your child, think PNR – Play, Nutrition and Rest. There is nothing wrong with watching TV and playing computer games - both of them can stimulate the mind by entertaining and educating at the same time. It becomes a problem when they take over and there is no time left for play involving physical activity on a daily basis. Like everything else, balance is key, and although there is no fixed formula, common sense can help you figure out how to provide appropriate PNR for your child each day. Good luck, enjoy each day and feel free to share your ideas and opinions on how you are managing them for your child.
Top Photo Source: OliverAlex on Flickr