Physical activity is an essential component of a healthy lifestyle. In combination with healthy eating, it can help prevent a range of chronic diseases, including heart disease, cancer, and stroke, which are the three leading causes of death. Physical activity helps control weight, builds lean muscle, reduces fat, promotes strong bone, muscle and joint development, and decreases the risk of obesity. Children need 60 minutes of play with moderate to vigorous activity every day to grow up to a healthy weight.
Sixty minutes sounds like a lot, right? It is — but Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist, doesn't think it's near enough to combat all of the issues that young people face today in the academic-oriented, competitive school culture. In this post, she explains why, and what should be done about it. Hanscom is the author of a number of popular posts on this blog, including "Why so many kids can't sit still in school today" and "How schools ruined recess." Hanscom is the founder of TimberNook, a nature-based development program designed to foster creativity and independent play outdoors in New England. She writes on the TimberNook blog, and her new book, "Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children," has just been released.
By Angela Hanscom
Movement equals health is one of those equations as indisputable as the sun equals light. But there are two important variables that rarely factor into this formula: the type of movement and how much. For children, it's a lot more than you think.
The U.S. government's recommendation of 60 minutes of vigorous movement a day for children, combined with healthy eating, is great for decreasing the risks of obesity and heart disease, among other chronic diseases. But children today have symptoms of other alarming problems, such as weaker bones and muscles, emotional instability and anxiety, surprising episodes of aggression, the inability to focus and pay attention, and problems "sitting still" compared to children of just two decades ago.
Know what helps with all of these? Movement. And a lot of it! To be healthy, children need several hours (not minutes!) of movement a day — preferably outdoors, where the senses are fully alive and their bodies are free to move in many different ways.
The White House, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are making efforts to combat the obesity epidemic. This is important and I applaud their efforts. But if we don't step in to address other problems on the rise, we risk setting our kids up for another epidemic: rampant developmental, behavioral and emotional disorders, and even the misdiagnosis of attention-deficit disorder and autism.
I recently got a call from a longtime friend. "My son is in full-day kindergarten now. He is the sweetest little boy in the world," she gushed. "He desperately wants to please his teacher, but he keeps failing miserably."
She started crying. She told me that her son comes home almost every day with a note that says he was "wiggly" during math or couldn't sit still for circle time again. "They don't know what to do with him," she said. "They have him carrying heavy books to the office thinking that this hefty load will somehow help to 'calm him.' And they encourage him to 'get his sillies out' by jumping on a trampoline for a few minutes, but it doesn't seem to help much."
She went on to say, "He is starting to think something is wrong with him. He says things like, 'I can't do anything right' or the most heart-breaking of all, 'I'm stupid.' He is just starting his academic years and already has a taste for defeat."
This 5-year-old is being targeted as a "problem child" simply because he needs to move more. According to veteran teachers who have been in the classroom for more than 30 years, maybe one or two children would have trouble paying attention in the past. Now, it is the new norm. Teachers are frequently telling me that on a good day, roughly 4 out of 13 children have trouble attending.
The number of developmental deficits seen in children today is unnerving. More and more kids are quick to become emotional, are fidgeting in the classroom, can't do a sit-up or a pushup, have inadequate social skills, are clumsy and can't function in collaborative group activities with peers. They don't seem to be able to think for themselves or solve problems on their own. Compared to past generations, many children can't keep up physically, socially, cognitively and emotionally.
But labeling these kids "troublemakers" or as suffering from "attention-deficit disorder" isn't the answer — diagnosis (clinical or anecdotal) doesn't mean the problem is solved. Let's look at the root cause. These could be symptoms of clinical disorders, but based on the sheer quantity of sensory and motor deficits seen in many children today — they are more than likely a result of the child's environment. Being indoors much of the day, being on screens an average of 7.5 hours a day and having adults curate all of their extracurricular time is harming our children and making them sick.
We can't expect children to sit for hours on end, interspersed with little movement breaks and not expect consequences to their development. Children need at least three hours of outdoor play on a daily basis in order to foster healthy sensory and motor development. Children need opportunities to go upside down, climb trees, run as fast as they can, use their imagination, test their strength, care for each other's scraped knees, roll, climb, balance and even spin in circles. All of these activities use their brain, activate their muscles both big and small, and engage the senses. This lays the foundation for being able to pay attention, listen and learn in a classroom setting.
So the next time you pick your children up from school, take them to an open field and let them explore for a while. On the weekends spend the day at the beach, even if it's not sunny and warm — there are benefits in all kinds of weather. If it is raining outside, let your kids play in it. Force them if you have to! Encourage kids to ride their bikes to friend's houses. Get to know your neighbors and create a community that watches out for the children so that they can play outdoors whether you live in an urban or a rural setting.
It's time to rethink the environment our children spend most of their waking hours in to allow for more outdoor play and movement throughout the day. Let's recall the 5-year-old "problem child" who couldn't sit still in class. Now place him in a school environment that incorporates lessons outdoors. In order to learn about plants, he spends days with his classmates creating a garden behind the school grounds. To practice writing letters, he writes with a stick in the dirt. His physical education class is shooting hoops outside or mountain biking on nature paths in the woods. After school, he takes off with his sister to go build forts at the rock pit in his neighborhood. Along the way, two other children join them, as they make decisions about when it's safe to cross the street, whether to climb some boulders on the way, and what type of materials they will use to build their fort with. Imagine the changes we would see in this child.
Studies indicate that when children switch from spending hours primarily indoors and sitting at a desk to one where the child is free to move and play throughout the day, the results can be drastic. Problems of poor attention and extra wiggles all but dissipate, and children become attentive and active learners. Unrestricted time outdoors fosters a joy of learning and confidence in one's abilities — two critical elements in the classroom and in life. All it takes is some time and a place to play outside.
As a society we're making great strides toward obesity prevention. While we are working to keep our children at healthy weights, we must also strive to ensure healthy behaviors, attitudes, sensory function, strength and coordination. This is true health, and to get it, our children should be introduced to a lot more outdoor playtime with their peers. Sixty minutes of movement is not enough!