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Outdoor play is crucial for healthy children and teens

Posted: July 19, 2012 5:48 p.m.
Updated: July 19, 2012 5:48 p.m.

Paige Carlson, 14, left, and Sarah Morris, 13, ride their bicycles at Valencia Glen Park.

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It’s summer, the sun is shining, the birds are chirping and kids are... staying inside?

Nearly half of all U.S. preschool-age children don’t get outdoors at least once a day for parent-supervised playtime, and many don’t get enough outdoor exercise, according to a new study.

“Not enough play time could be detrimental to the child’s development,” said study author Dr. Pooja Tandon, a pediatrician with the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute.
The study focused on a nationally representative sample of 9,000 preschoolers, defined here as those in the year before kindergarten.

“Free play is really important to kids’ social and emotional development,” she said. “They’re in structured activities, school, soccer, dance — and they’re getting less free time to do what they want. Parents are just shuttling kids around, here and there.”

Free play is supervised, unstructured time outside for kids to run, exercise and, yes, play.

“Many children don’t spend the entire day with parents; they’re at daycare or with caregivers,” Tandon said.
Parents assume “Young children are spending their day running around, that they’re active,” and so parents don’t encourage outdoor play when they get home from work, Tandon said.

“I’m a parent myself, and I struggle with this on a personal level, too,” Tandon said “Part of it is raising the adult level of consciousness that it’s just as important for kids to have free time and outdoor play as it is to do many other activities. A parent’s time is limited, and we can’t tell them how to prioritize, but it’s something they need to work on.”

Dr. Loraine Stern of Valencia Pediatric Associates agreed.

“When parents are working, kids aren’t at home to play in the yard,” she said. “They’re in structured activities, they do these stupid video games compulsively, so they’re not running around.”

Another factor is fear, she said.

“We hear about every child who gets a bump on the head and parents are afraid to let their kids be outside.”

This trend of declining outdoor play has been going on for at least 15 years, maybe 20, Stern said.

“It’s been a gradually increasing thing, and now it’s everywhere,” she said.

Elementary-age children and teens also need the benefit of outdoor play said experts with the Institute for Safe Families.

Luis Garcia, of Newhall, makes sure his 8-year-old daughter stays active, but scheduling makes it difficult.

She goes to a karate studio five days a week, in part because he also works there, but has been in lessons for two years.

When they want to go to the park, they usually drive down to the San Fernando Valley to be near family.

“Kids need to learn how to entertain themselves, and they need to learn the values of team activities, cooperation and leadership,” Stern said. “But they also know how to initiate their own activities.”

Debbie Love, also of Newhall, tries to bring her granddaughter to the park at least once a week, if not more. Angelique, 9, has dance class once a week, but still tries to go to the park to play.

“It’s very important to us,” Love said. “Especially in summer, we try to spend at least two or three hours here at a time.”

In the scorching heat of summer, both Tandon and Stern gave advice for playing outside safely in the heat.

“Have them run around in early morning or late afternoon,” Stern said. “Load them up on water, make sure they get a drink every half-hour.”

Children will keep playing, regardless of heat or exhaustion, until they collapse, she said.

“If they’re flushed and sweating, spray them with water and let them cool off,” she said.

If the weather is extremely hot try to avoid the hottest part of the day, Tandon said.

“Avoid the peak 10-to-2 heat, even though it may be the best time for your schedule,” Tandon said. “Try to do intervals throughout the week, twice a day in shorter time periods.”

If the heat is too bad, “There are times where indoor recess is better than no physical activity. But to the extent possible, we should be encouraging them outside, where they have more freedom,” she said.

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