Summertime. When you’re a kid, it’s a magical time of year. No school. Scavenger hunts and swimming parties. Outdoor fun until the sun goes down. This used to be the season when children were their most active. Unfortunately, now, with the hyper-reality of video games, the Internet, cable TV and DVDs, there’s little drive for many kids to even leave the house, and this is causing serious repercussions on their physical wellness.

A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that, on average, kindergartners and first-graders gained more weight over the summer than during the school year. Researchers studied over 5,000 youngsters and found that kids’ average BMI (Body Mass Index—a measure of body fat based on height and weight) increased over twice as much during the summer months as it did during the school year.

BMI growth rates were shown to slow to normal when school started up again. Most schools schedule regular physical activity for kids, and this routine is often lost during the summer. It seems that, for most kids, the surplus of unstructured time leads to sedentary activities and, as the CDC reports, excessive snacking. Parents must be aware of their children’s pastimes and encourage more physical play when school isn’t dictating their activity schedule. Accordingly, it is also parents’ responsibility to watch what and how much their kids are eating when they’re at home.

Getting kids moving isn’t just important in terms of obesity rates, either. University studies show that kids who participate in regular physical activity actually perform better academically as well. When children are allowed to lounge around the house all summer, watching TV and eating junk food, they will find themselves behind both physically and intellectually when school resumes.

Here are some tips to keep your young ones’ physical wellness in tip-top shape this summer:

  • Plan some physically active family fun. Everyone benefits when the whole family goes on walks, bike rides or trips to the park. You can keep physical activity engaging by turning it into a game. Encourage races, climbing and jumping to get everyone’s heart pumping.
  • Go to the pool. Almost every city has both public and private pools where you can leave the heat behind and help kids to build their swimming skills. Always keep children coated in a thick layer of sun block to protect their young skin. No pool? Use the sprinkler system to turn the back yard into a water park. Kids love running through water, even if it’s just a fine mist. You can also invest in an inflatable water slide or other outdoor toy and invite neighbors over to join in the fun. Again, don’t forget the sun block!
  • Summer camp. This is a great way to maintain a moderate level of structure during an otherwise lazy summer. Kids get lots of physical activity, sound nutritional choices and a set sleep schedule. Plus, according to the American Camp Association, 63% of children who learn new activities at camp continue these activities after they return home.
  • Even on the hottest days, there are plenty of places to go. Try bowling, roller skating or even a trip to the mall on days when the heat is extreme. Resist the urge to stay home and watch the tube.
  • Make eating a family thing. This is the time that children are learning what will later become their adult eating habits. Talk to your children about the building blocks of nutrition and experiment together with different food group combinations and healthy snacks. The main rule of thumb: try to get five servings of fruit and vegetables a day.

Even though summer is a break for kids, it’s also a chance for parents to have even more influence on how they develop. We want to teach kids useful skills that they can carry with them later in life. In this way, it’s the responsibility of all parents to get creative and find ways to make ‘healthy’ the norm for ‘fun’.

If you’re unable to be at home with your kids because of work, you may think that you can’t have an influence over their activity and snack choices during the summer, but take heart. There are things you can do, even if you’re not at home to monitor them. Don’t keep junk food in the house. If it isn’t around, they can’t eat it—just make sure to stock up on healthy alternatives.

Also, write down a list of activities you want accomplished by the time you get home. These can be chores, of course, and a few chores are important for teaching your kids responsibility and time-management. However, there should be some fun choices as well. Tell your kids you want a picture painted for you by the time you get home or that you’re going to want to hear all about the make-believe game they played in the afternoon. If your oldest child is in charge of watching the younger ones, set parameters around TV and video game time and have him or her enforce those rules. And make sure to provide your kids with plenty of materials and space to play games, go outside, and make arts and crafts.

If kids associate fun with eating sugary snacks and taking in an excess of media, that will become their default behavior as adults. However, if we can help them to associate the fun of summer with outdoor activities, exercise and well-chosen foods, they’ll be prepared for a fulfilling life of balanced wellness.

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