If you grew up more than 25 years ago, summer didn’t involve sitting in front of a computer or looking down at a smartphone every five seconds. It didn’t involve intense, organized sports.
Summer meant marathon games of tag and kickball. It meant building forts and treehouses. It meant riding bikes, skateboards and scooters.
It meant finding relief from the heat by jumping into a lake or a swimming pool, or running through a sprinkler. If we got tired of the same old games and activities, we invented new ones.
This is what summer was all about from sun up to sun down, with breaks for lunch and dinner. Every day, our parents would shout those four magic words that I wish more parents today would repeat all summer.
Go outside and play!
The importance of play
The human body was designed to be in motion. Sitting still is one of the unhealthiest activities for human beings, especially for kids whose bodies are still developing.
A sedentary lifestyle, whether that means sitting in front of a TV, computer, tablet or smartphone, is the first step to becoming overweight. Research has shown that overweight or obese children are five times more likely to become overweight or obese adults, which often leads to a lifetime of chronic illness.
But going outside to play isn’t just about exercising the body. It’s about exercising the brain and learning the kind of social interaction that seems to have been replaced by texting and instant messaging.
Kids need to learn how to share, take turns, win, lose and compromise. They need to learn how to solve problems. They need to learn how to fail and succeed. They need to pretend and use their imaginations.
Do your kids claim to be bored? Let them figure out how to “unbore” themselves!
Simply handing a child an iPad that doubles as a free babysitting service can do more harm than good. It stops children from using their brains. It teaches them that demanding instant gratification is okay. It gives them one more reason to avoid interacting with people.
Remember, mental, emotional and social exercise are as important as physical exercise. In addition to making smart nutritional choices – an important topic for another day – the best thing we can do for children is to tell them to go outside and play.
The problem with intense team sports
On the other end of the spectrum, we have kids doing the opposite of sitting and doing nothing. They’re constantly participating in intense, highly structured sports programs and training. This includes team sports like baseball, basketball and soccer, as well as individual sports like tennis, wrestling and golf.
My philosophy has always been that these programs are fine for high school kids if that’s what they really enjoy. Children younger than 14 should just go outside and play.
But today, third- and fourth-graders are playing on competitive travel teams. They’re participating in year-round, highly specialized training. Middle school kids are doing heavy weightlifting. There’s no off season. I know because I treat their injuries.
We have to beware of injuries resulting from the repetitive overuse of certain muscles, joints, ligaments and tendons. Strength, flexibility and endurance are things children should grow into naturally.
As adults, we’re done growing. We’re in maintenance mode. Kids younger than 14 are still in the prepuberty stage. Their bodies are growing, and the systems within their bodies are developing at rapid rates.
The problems that can result from participating in such intense programs at a young age aren’t just physical. My friends in the neuropsychology field have offices that are packed with children who are dealing with anxiety and depression resulting from ultra-competitive sports programs.
As parents, we have to ask ourselves an important question. Do we want our kids growing and developing naturally, enjoying childhood and playing? Or do we want to micromanage them into becoming mini-adults at such a young age?
Just to be clear, I have no problem with organized sports and travel teams. I’ve been an athlete my entire life, and I work with athletes every day in clinical practice. I just think we sometimes put kids into these structured environments a little too early.
As a father of five, I know as well as anyone that every child is different. Even if the physical talent is obvious, it’s up to us as parents to determine if our children are mentally equipped to handle more competitive situations.
With summer upon us, let’s encourage children to be active. Tell them to exercise their bodies and minds. Let them enjoy summer and just be kids.
Instead of buying them a new gadget and some new apps, or signing them up for three different sports or activities, tell them to go outside and play!