By: Dr. Parnell Donahue
When our family lived in Wisconsin, we took advantage of February’s cold weather by having a cookout on our pond. By Valentine’s Day, the pond was topped with 15 to 20 inches of solid ice, so we had no fear of breaking through. We invited every family we knew and borrowed grills from some of our guests. Each year, we served 12 to 15 dozen hamburgers.
Most of our guests hadn’t skated before, while some of the younger ones were accomplished skaters. Many of the adults just enjoyed the warm sun and watching the skaters perform. Our friends from the Philippines commented that the weather was very cold but that the party was the best they had ever attended.
All in all, these were great times for everyone. What made them great? It wasn’t the cold weather or the ice, not the food, it was the camaraderie of a group of people willing to face the elements and enjoy life.
Enjoying life and having fun is essential for both kids and adults. Fun, play, and enjoyment are the best teachers.
Childhood educator Maria Montessori said, “Play is the work of the child.”
Playing outside on the grass, in the snow, or in the woods has been shown to help kids with ADHD control their emotions and temper their activity. Every parent knows that being active is a great way to control weight. Fat tissue is to the body what gas tanks are to cars. The more miles you drive, the less gas will be in your tank; and the more active you are, the less fat will be on your body.
But many adults fear winter and think of it as a time to sit in rocking chairs by the fire and complain about the cold weather. Kids have a different outlook. In Wisconsin, we often saw kids come to school in T-shirts without jackets, and, I’m assuming, against their mother’s advice.
You don’t need a pond or ice skates to have fun in the winter. Fresh snow makes great snow angels! If it falls on a hill, you can ski or sled on it; you don’t even need a sled, just grab a cardboard box and make your own toboggan. What could be more fun than building a snowman, a snow fort, or your very own igloo?
Our home in Brentwood has a large hill just behind our house. Every snowfall attracts the neighbor kids, many dads and moms, and a few dogs to the hill pulling sleds, toboggans, and cardboard sheets, knowing that by evening most of the snow will be melted. But that doesn’t stop the fun.
Not all cities have snow-covered hills but ice rinks and inside basketball courts are available in most places. And every day, winter or summer, is a great day for a nature hike.
In cold January as well as hot July, whitetail deer, wild turkeys, squirrels, and all kinds of birds are common in most of the states; my wife, Mary, and I once saw a bobcat prance past our house, and a few days later, a red fox visited our lot. Keep your eyes and ears open for these beautiful creatures whenever you are outside and every minute you spend outdoors will become a nature hike.
If you’re really lucky, you will have a set of encyclopedias with lots of information about the native plants and animals you see on your walk. If not, a search online can be helpful. Best of all is a parent or someone ready to talk about the things you discovered. Nature hikes make learning fun.
There are many reasons why being active is more than just fun. That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics and the NFL have called on kids to be more active. NFL PLAY 60 is the league’s national youth health and wellness campaign, which encourages kids to be physically active for at least 60 minutes a day. The NFL has provided more than 38 million children the resources they need to boost their activity levels by supporting programs in more than 73,000 schools and constructing more than 265 youth fitness zones nationwide. Reading the NFL 60 website with your kids (NFL.com/causes/play60/) will give you much-needed information.
Since kids spend much of their waking hours in the classroom, schools have a responsibility to promote physical activity and give kids a recess break. According to former Georgia State professor Olga Jarrett, “There is this assumption that if you keep kids working longer, they will learn more. It’s misguided.”
Jarrett explained that no research supports the notion that test scores go up by keeping children in the classroom longer, but there is plenty of evidence that recess benefits children in cognitive, social-emotional, and physical ways. Research shows that children with recess have improved memory, more focused attention, and better leadership and negotiation skills, and are better at resolving conflict.
For misguided reasons, many schools no longer provide recess. If your kids’ school does not, get your friends together and make a visit to the principal, the superintendent, and the school board. If they are unwilling to add recess, find a different school or homeschool! Parents must insist on taking the lead on what goes on in their kids’ schools.
The NFL and schools solve this problem without the help of parents. It’s up to parents to make sure their kids get time every day to play and get the exercise they need. And, like everything else, kids do what they see their parents do.
To paraphrase a common adage: The family that plays together stays together. Play can be the glue that holds families together. With parents as coaches and team leaders, kids learn respect for each other as well as for their parents. They also learn how to follow the rules of the game and the consequences of violating a simple rule.
It’s also interesting that most things kids and adults love to do involve activity, for example, athletic games. Charades, play-acting, and making things like snowmen, tree houses, and model race cars all require imagination and creativity as well as activity. Play teaches kids to think, communicate, cooperate, and stay mentally and physically healthy.
Not all play needs to be, or should be, supervised by adults. Kids should learn to play independently with peers. By doing so they learn leadership and teamwork. They’ll even make up their own games with their own rules and penalties. They’ll work out differences between themselves and grow in their ability to compromise when needed and to hold fast if necessary.