The “Finding Active Things Kids Like To Do” Challenge

A recent study out of Scotland found that after the age of 7, activity levels go down for both boys and girls. When Randy Clark, manager of the Pediatric Fitness Clinic read about it, he wasn’t at all surprised.

“Finding ways to engage kids in physical activity is a huge challenge I face as a parent and in my work at the Pediatric Fitness Clinic,” he says.  Clark, whose children are 12 and 14 years old, shares that part of the problem, in his opinion, is the increasing time we spend looking at screens.  He shares that as part of the ‘baby boomer outside generation’, fun included wiffle ball, touch football, capture the flag, kick-the-can and skating at the local rink. Now kids are growing up in a very different world filled with cell phones, iPods, personal computers and hand held devices. For him, while they are wonderful advancements in technology, they have led to an increasing amount of sedentary screen time.”

“My own kids watch YouTube ALL of the time,” he shares. “My son does his own vlog – they are clever, creative and he is active when making the videos, but then there’s a significant amount of time he spends editing, posting, watching other videos – the hours really add up. One my favorites is the backyard snowboarding park we built together, he gave me a cameo role.”

He’s quick to add that he doesn’t believe screen time in general is somehow bad, but that time spent playing video games, sending chats or texting can really add up. “I’ve even seen my daughter and a friend watch videos or carry on a conversation over text, even though they’re in the same room,” Clark adds. Without structure and supervision kids will chat and watch videos for hours.

A lot of parents spend time on their phones or tablets for “down time” – waiting in the grocery line, sitting at the park with the kids, at the coffee shop; just about anywhere. So for Clark it’s no wonder that kids turn to screens as well, “It’s hard for a kid to buy into the value of being outside playing if parents don’t make a point of getting outside as well.”

Clark credits a blog post from UW Health psychiatrist Dr. Marcia Slattery as helping to provide some perspective for him, and even strategies he uses in his own family.

“When I told my kids ‘put the phones away’ – that didn’t go anywhere. When we sat down as a family and came up with a ‘screen time policy’ and everyone had a say of when and where devices could be used, it made all the difference,” he shares. “There was compromise on both sides, but it’s helped us find a better balance.”

Since his kids were little, Clark made a point of ensuring activity was part of the family’s lifestyle – from long bike rides on the Boulder Junction trail, hiking in Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks, or just swimming at the local pool in summer. As his kids continue to grow, being active remains natural for them and not something he has to continually push them to do. He recognizes it’s part luck and part long-term efforts paying off.

“I really do believe there’s a correlation between how active we were as a family and how active they are as teens,” he observes.

Parents know that screens can help keep kids occupied. Long wait at the grocery store, quiet time to get some work done, long car ride – many parents have used screens as a distraction, and that’s okay. But many have likely also experienced the challenge of getting kids away from the video games or constant stream of shows. It can be frustrating for parents when all kids want to do on a beautiful spring day is spend time indoors on a screen. The key – and the challenge – is finding a balance.

“There’s no question it can be difficult to find active things kids like to do. That is why our Pediatric Fitness Clinic was developed,” says Clark. “We started small with pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Aaron Carrel, a nutritionist and me. Now we have four physicians, a nurse and an entire team of clinical exercise physiologists and registered dietitians to help families with this challenge, because there really is a need.”

As hard as it can be with busy schedules and never-ending demands, Clark shares that part of the secret is making activity a priority for the family. While older kids may not be as willing to do things like going for a family walk after dinner, going hiking on a day trip or skiing on a vacation can help pique kids’ interests. In the day-to-day, helping them discover what they like to do and finding someone they enjoy spending time with – like a friend – can also make all the difference.

“In our clinic, we avoid the term ‘exercise’ because it sounds un-fun,” Clark explains. “And it can create this sense that physical activity is limited to the gym. Instead we use words like ‘getting outside,’ ‘active play’ and ‘movement fun.’”

According to Clark, the keys to increasing activity for kids include:

1) Finding something active they like to do,

2) Participating with someone they enjoy, and

3) Parent support.

He acknowledges that as parents, we don’t always get it right the first time; it’s a trial and error method. But family support and buy-in to the process are critical. Without it, the chances for increasing activity in a child are slim-to-none.

“If you want kids to maintain an active lifestyle, they need to discover how fun and rewarding that can be,” Clark says. And he notes that participating in group activities – whether it’s a recreational Ultimate Frisbee league or just a pick-up game at the park – helps kids develop interpersonal skills as well. Competitive team sports work for some kids, but are certainly not for everyone. Whether it’s participation on an athletic team, or just playing with friends, there are clear physiological health benefits and valuable life lessons learned. In addition to conflict resolution, compromise and of course team work and good sportsmanship are all skills kids learn through interacting with each other, even during unstructured play.