How to help your kids avoid weight gain and keep their minds engaged during summer break.
Kids riding bicycles, families swimming at the pool, pick-up baseball games in the neighborhood park — these are the quintessential images of summer break.
Pursuit of these activities represents more than just fun in the sun. They’re imperative for your children’s physical and mental health.
Recent studies have shown that kids gain more weight over the summer than any other time of year, including Halloween and Christmas. A large-scale study of 18,170 children in the U.S., for instance, showed that prevalence of obesity in children increased only during summer months and not during the school year.
On average, kids also lose 7 weeks’ worth of academic instruction, which is almost two months. In other words, the average child returning to school is re-learning last year’s material through mid-October.
Helen Binns, MD, director of the Wellness & Weight Management Center at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital, says the two key elements to maintaining healthy minds and bodies through summer vacation are keeping kids in activities and offering healthy foods.
“I encourage parents to keep their children engaged in activities — park district camps, other events or summer school,” says Dr. Binns. “Also, the kitchen is right around the corner — parents need to provide healthy food in their home and healthy beverages to prevent continuing weight gain.”
The average 10-year-old should consume about 1,600 to 2,600 calories per day depending on level of activity and other factors, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Watch out for juices and sodas, as those tend to have large quantities of refined sugars and therefore higher calorie counts.
Child psychologist Jean Piaget famously said, “Play is the work of childhood.”
Encourage active play for at least one to two hours a day. Exercise for kids doesn’t have to mean a three-mile run or 30 minutes in the gym. Simply getting outside and playing with friends is often all it takes.
You may need to be the play partner or play facilitator. Invite your child to play catch or take them to the park. You can get your own exercise while promoting your child’s activity. Consider turning exercise into games. Lay out simple obstacle courses with hula hoops, jump ropes, boxes, milk crates or outdoor furniture. They’ll have fun, and it will stimulate creativity.
“I tell families, ‘Every day you are active, you build muscle; and every day you are inactive, you lose muscle,’” says Dr. Binns. “An hour or two daily of play outdoors leads to muscle building.”
Dr. Binns also encourages parents to be mindful of encouraging “NEAT” activities. These “non-exercise activity thermogenesis” activities encompass all the energy we expend for everything other than sleeping, eating or intentional exercise. NEAT ranges from the energy spent walking to work, typing and fidgeting, to yard work and cooking.
“I encourage children to keep their body upright during the day — do activities while standing,” says Dr. Binns. “Avoid using electronics while lying on your bed. Consider getting a stability ball for your child to sit on to build core strength.”
A few more things parents can do include parking at the back of the lot, dropping kids a block or two from friends’ houses, and involving children in gardening and lawncare.
Keep Brains Active, Too
It’s important to keep kids’ minds sharp and stimulated throughout the summer. Summer classes and day camps can get expensive, but there are many alternatives that are available at a low cost or no cost at all. Most community libraries have summer reading lists. Parents can take mini “field trips” to places like museums and zoos, which often have free or reduced-admission days. To keep kids’ writing chops sharp, parents can have their children journal about the experience.
Dr. Binns says parents need to model the behavior and facilitate healthy decisions among their children.
“I tell parents that, for the summer especially, ‘The parent is the teacher,’” says Dr. Binns. “I encourage them to provide structure, including reading time, games, crafts, and even math books or math problems.”
Parents can start impromptu book clubs for teens and their friends. They can set aside 30 minutes a day for math.
Whatever you do, keep kids moving and keep their minds engaged: Moving helps keep the mind sharp, and a sharp mind will want to move.