When we became nomads, we chose to center our life around PLAY and for good reason. The benefits of play on your health, fitness, wellness, and happiness are tremendous. The endorphin release alone that you get from play benefits your mental well-being and improves hormone function which will help you stay leaner, stronger, and be able to enjoy your life even more.
Why Children Need To Play More
When Robyn and I first opened Island Tumble in 1997, we wanted to create a program that was unique, non-competitive, progressive, and a reflection of a traditional gymnastics program designed to include advanced strength and conditioning work.
As we started having kids of our own, we saw a HUGE link between play, behavior, and learning. Over the years our focus has evolved more towards learning fun skills, movement, and games. We still integrate progressive gymnastics skills over the course of a session, however, we’ve learned that if our focus is only on core skills that will lead to advanced tumbling, but the majority of kids would be unable to do our program.
Why? Unfortunately, we are losing a battle. In the twenty years we ran Island Tumble, we saw an overall decline in kids fitness level. When we first opened Island Tumble, the 5-7-year-old classes would finish every class with 100 pushups, two minutes of isometric abdominal work, and 100 Squat jumps. We are currently struggling to get kids to do one set of ten pushups! Most kids could climb the rope multiple times per class and now the majority have difficulty with climbing it once. Not all of the decreases are measurable like this. Some of the changes we’ve seen have more to do with changes in gross motor skills such as hanging, bouncing, and jumping.
We aren’t saying this applies to all kids, however, there is definitely a downward trend. Unfortunately, schools are partly to blame. In order to make sure that “no child is left behind”, many schools have decreased the amount of time for P.E. and recess. In the current state of modern American culture, our kids are suffering from a wide array of issues, including obesity, diabetes, and ADHD, from their sedentary lifestyle. These issues are not just linked with nutrition, but also a lack of movement.
Make Exercise Fun
Having worked in the fitness industry for the last 20 years, I can tell you that strength and conditioning is something you can teach a child to do, but given the choice, they’d rather play. The average 5-7 year old will focus for up to ten minutes on traditional strength and conditioning, after that they are checking out. If I have children play a game, which recruits muscles of the entire body, they will play until they are too exhausted to play.
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This is a strong statement I know, but I see it first hand. I can predict from general movement patterns if a child will have trouble in school. It comes down to movement. As coaches, we’ve had to make changes that will keep kids wanting to exercise. In class we have children go through a variety of animal walks as part of warm up or cool down. These animal-walks force the student to move their bodies in patterns that challenge both sides of the brain and condition their muscles. To the kids, it’s just fun and usually makes them laugh, but at the beginning of each session, I am surprised when children enter our program and can’t crawl. Sound crazy if you think about human development, but if a child has difficulty with a simple movement pattern like crawling, it’s only natural that they will have trouble with reading or math.
The school systems have noticed this trend and in some schools, they are taking it to the floor and teaching or reinforcing these primal movement patterns between lessons or during physical education. The point is that children who have opportunities to play over and over will reinforce movement patterns, which will keep their mind and body learning.
I know personally, I am more productive and can focus better after I play!
Make Time For Unstructured Play
We can’t reverse this trend in one hour a week, but we can integrate some really important functional movement mixed in with play to keep kids active, improve functional movement patterns, and regain strength. To the untrained eye, it might appear as if our students are just running around, jumping, climbing, rolling, and playing. In essence, we are giving them the space and direction to get to be children! But the benefits of creating an environment for kids to regain, maintain, and improve these valuable movement patterns is immense. The answer is not to create kids fitness classes, but to create more opportunities for children to play, and to play in non-competitive situations.
There is definitely a time and a place for competitive sports but currently, that is what is only being provided to active children. The reality is that by the time those children are young adults the majority are burnt out on sports and need to find exercise that enhances movement. If we nurture play and movement, then children will continue to move, not because you want them to be fit, but because they have learned to enjoy movement. That was our number one goal in creating our Raising Athletic Kids course .. .to make exercise fun!
Play Benefits Adults Too!
It doesn’t stop with kids, recent studies have focused on the importance of play for adults and have found a huge link with improved weight loss. Adults who play are happier, leaner, and have better fitness. Through my 20’s I lived and breathed the gym. It was hard to convince me to take a day off. I had tunnel vision, which in the end led to overtraining and fewer results.
More importantly, I was missing a valuable part of my development, play. In order to reach your peak physical and mental state, you have to play. Living a playful life for an adult really comes down to any activity in which you “lose yourself” in. The key ingredient is that you are not perceiving yourself in a workout or work.
If you are engaged in a tennis match or are surfing you are not generally thinking, “Wow! I’m in my target heart rate zone and burning a lot of calories.” Instead, you are so engaged in the moment trying to win the point or getting your stoke on catching waves that you forget that you are getting the benefits of exercise. All your mind is thinking is how much fun you are having.
Getting in “the zone” or “the flow” can happen through painting, gardening, reading, but it’s important that we get it through physical activities as well.
Play improves diaphragmatic breathing. Our society lives in a “fight or flight” breathing patterns. Quite simply, you cannot live life as if you are running from a bear. Play helps the body return to a more relaxed state through improved breathing which improves posture and digestion. So the secret, which we preach is workout + nutrition + play = wellness.
Be Who You Want Your Kids To Be
Life is hard. We have so many demands on our time and our energy, both mentally and physically, that it’s hard to prioritize yourself. Please be selfish and take the time to play. Your kids emulate you more than you may realize. I promise you that if you set the example your kids will follow.