There are a lot of avenues for your child to pursue in the quest to become more active. From Little League baseball to ballet lessons, shooting a basketball to bicycling, he has many options to choose from. And that’s the key—your child, not you, should be the person making the choice. If he’s going to stay active long term, he needs to select something that he likes and will keep doing.
That’s why it’s important for parents not to micromanage their children’s physical activities. Some children enjoy organized activity, while others prefer outdoor free play for which they’re left to their own devices on how they’ll be active. Free play can be a powerful form of exercise, contributing to the development of motor skills and serving as a great outlet for your youngster’s energy. As a society, we’re overlooking the value of this kind of active play, even though the AAP recommends only free play, rather than team sports, up to the age of 6 years. Whether you live in a city or rural area, find a park, playground, or other outdoor area where your young child can do his own thing.
Yes, you can make sure that some balls and other play equipment are available whenever your child goes outside, but let him decide exactly what he wants to do. Parents often find it helpful to give their children 3 or 4 activity options from which to choose, or they might ask their youngsters what choices they’d like available. Pose a question like this to your child: “If you weren’t watching TV, what could you be doing instead?” Don’t be surprised if you initially get a blank stare from him, so give him some concrete alternatives: “Could you jump rope? Or play tennis? Or go in-line skating? Or go for a brisk walk?”
You might instead say, “Here are 3 activities you could do this afternoon. You could swim, go bowling with your brother, or go for a walk. Which one would you like to do?”
On the other hand, if you insist that your child participate in an activity that he finds boring or grueling—“Jimmy, it’s time to walk on the treadmill!”—he’ll probably lose interest quickly and end up in front of the TV. If you provide him the opportunity to participate in an activity that he enjoys, he’s likely to keep doing it.
Exploring Different Activities
Now, what about organized sports like soccer teams and Little League? They’re fine for children aged 6 years and older who want to join in, but it’s important to have realistic expectations. Your aim should be for your child to be physically active and enjoy the experience, not necessarily excel as the best player on the team. You shouldn’t be trying to create an elite athlete, and if he chooses to move from one sport to another rather than concentrating only on one, that’s fine. For example, if he shows an interest in a basketball league, great—but if he also wants to learn how to ski when winter comes around, all the better. Let him explore different activities.
He’ll develop a wide variety of physical skills and more importantly, he’ll keep moving. Here are some other guidelines to keep in mind when selecting activities with your child.
Anything that involves movement qualifies as physical activity.
It doesn’t have to push your child to the point of collapse to contribute to his efforts at weight management.
When you present your child with alternatives or options for activities, create the boundaries of acceptable choices.
Perhaps joining the hockey team is too expensive for your family budget—not only the sign-up fee, but the cost of the skates and other equipment. There are plenty of other choices that should be within your family’s financial means.
While many youngsters love being active with other kids, some children who are overweight feel self-conscious or embarrassed about participating in group sports. They may be more inclined to choose an activity that they can do on their own. Another approach is to plan physical activities for your youngster together with a special friend or sibling with whom he feels comfortable.
Above all, the activity must be fun, and your child should be successful at it.
What’s Right for Your Child?
There’s no scarcity of activities that you can make available to your child, and all kids can find some form of exercise that they enjoy, even if they tell you that they’d much rather sit and snack on the couch. You can also use your imagination to add to the list of appropriate choices for your own child, perhaps including hiking, gardening, snorkeling, gymnastics, stair climbing, or playing with a hula hoop. You can get him a dog if he agrees to walk his new pet twice a day. You could also buy him a basketball and put up a hoop in your driveway.
Remember, even household chores—from raking leaves to vacuuming the house to washing the car—qualify as physical activity as long as they keep your child moving.
Don’t overlook youth activities sponsored by your community’s parks and recreation department, which might include volleyball, badminton, or table tennis. Encourage your youngster to stay active by giving him gifts like riding lessons. At his birthday parties, incorporate some physical activity, perhaps by taking his friends and him to play miniature golf or planning a trip to the batting cages to swing at baseballs.
Also, keep in mind that there are lifetime sports that he can develop a love for and continue doing throughout his lifetime. If you can get your child interested in an activity like this when he’s young, exercise and fitness are more likely to become a habit that lasts for many decades. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that physical education programs in schools emphasize lifetime sports (as well as activities that are not just for the best athletes). These lifetime sports include
No matter what activity your child chooses, whether it burns lots of body fat or just a little, it is better than just sitting. That’s the message to communicate to a child who wants to lose weight.