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The Play's the Thing

Kathryn L. Stout, B.S.Ed., M.Ed.
Published: May 2000
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When I was young, it was common for kids to gather on their own, playing games together in neighborhood fields or nearby parks. However, by the time I had my own family, I did not feel it would be safe to allow my kids that same privilege. Perhaps for that reason, many children today spend more time playing computer games than "running, hopping, and jumping." We can no longer take for granted that our children will be physically fit-with all the benefits that brings. We need to schedule physical play, and summer is the perfect time to start.

Young children don't usually need to be encouraged to run and jump-to physically play. They just need plenty of opportunity and a bit of supervision to help them move properly in order to develop the strength, flexibility, and coordination they need. Frequent chances to climb on playground equipment-up ladders, or hand-over-hand on horizontal ladders-will build body and hand strength. Sliding and swinging will help them with balance. Other activities require a bit more instruction, however.

For example, children enjoy tumbling, but can hurt themselves if not taught proper body posture. Help them tuck their chins toward their chests and avoid touching the top of their heads to the floor when practicing a forward roll. Supervise practice with backward rolls and cartwheels as well. Then let them roll their whole bodies sideways down a grassy hill for a fun break. Provide simple obstacle courses to build coordination. Kids can move around or between objects without touching them, as if in a maze. Make parallel lines on the floor with tape, or draw them in the sand while at the beach, and tell them how they are allowed to move (and in what direction) within those lines: crawl, walk, run, tiptoe, hop, gallop-forward, sideways, backwards. Make the obstacle course more difficult by adding objects to climb, jump, or crawl over, around, under, through, or into.

Notice how the children jump. Frequently, young children leap rather than jump with both feet leaving the ground together. If that is the case, direct them and add jumping practice. Draw two parallel lines in the dirt and tell them it's a river they must jump over. Place a hula hoop on the ground and have them jump into the hoop and out again. Roll a ball toward them and have them jump over it before it touches their feet. Or work on jumping high by having them jump up to touch your outstretched hand, or a mark on the wall. Balls are always welcome toys. Teach children to bounce with two hands, then one, bending their wrists and pushing with their hand rather than relying entirely on arm strength. Let them bounce balls while walking and moving around obstacles. They can practice throwing overhand using balls or beanbags and tossing them into a container or target on the ground. Gradually increase the distance between the child and the target. As children show skill, add movement-running to catch a ball, kicking a ball toward a goal, or kicking a ball around obstacles, as in soccer drills. Provide plenty of opportunities for playing traditional games-jumping rope, hopscotch, tag, relay races, and kickball. Some of these require a number of children. Getting together with other homeschoolers and/or neighborhood kids can provide enough warm, energetic bodies to field a couple of teams for various activities. These can be semi-informal gatherings organized by word-of-mouth or more structured events scheduled along with picnic or nature lesson in the park where cooking or teaching duties are shared with the other moms. You can also check your local YMCA for day camps centered on sports or games.

If your kids aren't begging for a chance to join a sports team, or just get outside, you may think it's easier to just leave well enough alone and let them occupy themselves with videos, software, or any other quiet activity that suits them. Remind yourself of all the benefits of a healthy body-including greater ability to concentrate, stamina to work harder, longer, and a mellowing of mood for the anxious-then push those "potatoes" off the couch!

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