How to keep your kids active at Home

One of the most difficult aspects of the lockdown has been to be suddenly stuck at home managing to work from home while re-inventing your daily family routine. For those with children, one massive challenge is to keep them busy (and studying) while you are working. Various people have adopted different strategies – some parents take turns between online meetings and video calls during their shifts, some booked online gym classes for kids and some creative families have managed to create a home playground between the living room and the garden. I’m sure parents have learned a lot about their kids’ general daily physical activity needs during this time, and I’m sure many have tried to improvise while at same time questioning themselves whether they are on the right path right path.

Before I became a physiotherapist, I was a PE teacher for 5 years in a primary school in my hometown in Italy. A big part of this job was the weekly commitment to prepare the best physical education for 5 classes of around 30 children aged 6 to 11 years old. This job has been one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences of my life because I was dealing with around 150 children with different physical needs and requirements. I thought it would be useful to share with you some important information and useful tips coming from this wonderful and intense experience.

1. Little helpers

I’m sure you noticed that after buying the best toys, young kids often ignore them preferring to follow you and play with your things (which are sometimes expensive or dangerous), copying you. This is a very important key point: one of the best ways to keep them engaged and busy is to make them your “little helper”, giving them tools similar to yours (plastic glasses or knives, no sharp or expensive objects, etc.) asking them to copy you or help you in some task. Whenever they do a good job, give them your verbal appreciation and some reward. This will make them feel important for you and for the family or group in general. Collaboration, commitment and sharing moments is really important for them and one of best aspects to keep them interested to explore the world with you and then by themselves.

If you do yoga or if you are lifting weights, you may have seen them trying to come closer and imitate you. I suggest that you encourage them to do this, using appropriate tools and keeping an eye on them. What is important is to allow them to be free to try without making them committed to a full training because it would be too intense. I saw parents trying to keep their child busy with them exactly for one hour of aerobics. This could be too intense for their body. Let them imitate you as much as they want and in the form they can.

2. Little adults

One of major mistakes we make is to treat them as children. It is true they are children but in their own way and time they are able to think, plan, decide etc. So it’s very important to treat them like little adults and give them time and space to share decisions with the family or at least express their opinion and point of view, which often will be so clever and from a unique perspective.

We often impose our decision on them asking them to follow and to agree without making them understand or participate. With this behaviour we show them that they have no power to decide, that they cannot understand and they only have to follow or execute: this is unfortunately the best way to prepare a complicated adolescence.

3. Rules

For any activity there are always some necessary rules to be fixed, depending on the situation. As much as you can, try to fix rules with them letting them experience why rules are necessary and what could happen if they not respected. Consistency is very important, so make rules understandable but also similar for everyone. Try not to make rules only for them because common rules are more likely to be followed. Often, we make the mistake to be make rules only for them and not for us and they will not understand why. Try to be strict as possible with rare exceptions.

If you said playground for 1 hour, put a timer and when the time is up make it happen without any other option or negotiation. Instead, try to discuss and negotiate things at the beginning when planning the activities with them.

Give rewards for following rules and also explain what will happen in case of rule-breaking. When this happens, actions matter more than words. Try to avoid yelling and comparison with siblings or other people they know, but instead give them some time off or commitment to do a “not so fun activity” versus letting them do their favourite activities as reward for respecting rules.

 

4. Be a good role model

It seems obvious but they will do exactly what you do because you are everything for them. Don’t be upset if you ask them to be tidy but you’re not. Tidying up, cleaning, as any good habit should part of any activity from cooking together to exercise. Remember that any moment is a good moment to teach something and let them learn

5. Planning

As any other activity sport or job, it’s always better to have a good plan. Make a list of activities (shared or not), a weekly plan or a daily routine. Share with them as much as you can, because you’re planning not only FOR them but also WITH them. Decide in advance times, location, activities, rules, time off, etc. and share those decisions with them.

6. Verbal + visual + physical

A good way to stimulate a good learning process is to properly explain it using your words but also showing them what you mean and letting them try it. This can be applied to various fields.

If you made a plan for the week or for the day, make it also visual by writing it down on a calendar. Another way is to make a board with pictures or objects to create a list or a sequence of events. If you want them to learn a new skill, teach them verbally but also manually, be their model or show them a video if you don’t know how to do it.

If they practice a specific sport and you spot something that could be improved make a video of them and show them their mistakes without being judgemental and then show them a video of someone with a perfect movement to imitate. Ask them to visualise a movement or a technique in their mind before to execute it. This will help them make a lot of progress.

7. Play, play and play

Playtime is everything for a child (and as adults we should keep a daily play time). They see most of their activities as a game and we should make most of their activities as a funny game or moment (even cleaning or typing up), rather than thinking in terms of sport we should think in terms of games or simple competitions.

8. Boring time

You don’t need to plan all their life. It’s good for them to have some free time without activity, without the tv or tablet and even without toys. They need free time without usual tools to find solutions by themselves. They will tell you that it is boring and they will probably get frustrated but plan at least 30 minutes everyday when they need to self-manage and find something interesting to do (even nothing). This will give them time to think and appreciate what they usually have and also increase their creativity to find something to do even if nothing is available (no toys, paper, pen, no tv, music, tablet, phone, etc.).

9. Physical abilities

As human beings we have amazing physical abilities and we should practice these all our lives. First it is good to understand that we have 2 main umbrellas of abilities:

As human beings we have amazing physical abilities and we should practice these all our lives. First it is good to understand that we have 2 main umbrellas of abilities:

  • Conditional (force, flexibility, speed/rapidity, resistance/endurance)
  • Coordinative generic (ability to learn, direct, control, reproduce, transform or adapt a movement) and specific.

Most of our trainings as adults are focused on the conditional aspects while in our childhood we required a lot of work on the coordinative functions rather than force, speed or resistance. The coordination comes first from practicing the basic motor skill (crawl, roll skip/jump, climb, bring, grab, throw, walk, run, etc.) during the early years, then combining them towards more complicated skills up to technical sport gestures. The specific coordinative skills include also the abilities to couple the movement or separate them, the eye-hands coordination, the orienteering in the space and time, the ability to react, to express a rhythm (playing or moving), and the body balance capacity.

The balance is a skill halfway in between conditional and coordinative and it is very important for many sports but also to keep good flexibility. An important ability often underestimated is the ability to alternate muscle contraction with relaxations. Most of people are quite good to contract and only a few are good to relax. Then who has a good contraction control often doesn’t know how to make it faster (rapidity) or alternate (right and left, flexor and extensor). The ability to perceive a muscle as relaxed or stretched is very important in the adult age, as prevention of certain injuries) or to keep a good posture.

Meditation during childhood or games where they need to squeeze and release certain muscles can be very useful. Another important aspect is to keep a good proportion between force and flexibility overall during the development phases. Any type of game is good to stimulate the coordination up to very complicated gestures.
At the beginning of childhood, it is good to make them imitate animal movement (walk like an elephant or jump like a frog, crawl like a snake or like a cat, etc.).

9. Twelve years

From birth, a child needs 12 years to have a complete body development. After that, the body continues growing during adolescence and part of adulthood but not developing. Growth is related to bones extending or thickening, muscle mass increase, etc. Development is more related to the maturity of the nervous system and many other aspects such as the laterality or the ability to forecast and visualise will be consolidated only at 12 years. My key advice in planning the activities of children below 12 years old are:

  • Turgor and Proceritas – These are two opposite phases during a child’s development: Turgor is an enlargement phase where muscles, fat mass and body strength increases while Proceritas is an extension phase where a child grows taller and slimmer, the bones are extending and the nervous system is expanding. In Turgor a child increases strength but loses flexibility while in Proceritas a child loses strength but increases flexibility. With these phases in mind, make your child exercise for the lacking quality depending on what phase they are in: so if your child is in Turgor then you need to work on their flexibility and coordination, but if your child is in Proceritas then they need to improve force, speed, balance and coordination.
  • Laterality – This is the quality related to the dominance of a brain hemisphere on a body half. The majority of humans have the brain’s left hemisphere as dominant which is in control of the right side of the body, so they will write, grab, throw with the right hand and kick, climb, jump with the right foot forward. It applies also to the eyes and ears (e.g. they will prefer to look through a camera or a pipe with the right eye or listening to the phone with the right ear). My advice is to let your child explore his own laterality and avoid forcing to change his dominant side. For example, some parents force their children to write with the right even if they are left-handed. A good way to exercise the laterality is to exercise movement in both directions like rolling to the left and rolling to the right, jumping to the left and jumping to the right, etc. Some children naturally develop double laterality so can do everything with both sides without any effort and you cannot notice any difference. If that is the case then it is good to naturally improve it but never force it.
  • Cardio: no thanks! – Often I see parents pushing children to do a lot of cardio like an adult. In reality they will only have all the enzymes to manage the lactate in their muscles and switch toward a full aerobic metabolism until they are 12 years old. Before this age, if they run, swim, or cycle too long they will develop more lactate than an adult so would potentially get more cramps, fatigue and muscle soreness during or immediately after exercising. It is best to listen to them and let them stop when tired of the same repetitive movement or sport.
  • From cartilage to bones – A newborn baby has less bones and more cartilage than an adult. In between cartilages there are bony nucleus of growth which will progressively produce a lot of bone tissue until they will reach 12 years of age. Only at this point the skeleton will be fully formed and it will be mainly made of bones with cartilages only in the joints as cushions. That’s why intense and repetitive actions of muscles over the bones through the tendons can create many pathologies (like the Osgood-Schlatter disease or the Sever’s disease) of the growing period where the joints become inflamed or the pull form the tendons creates micro fractures (avulsions). My advice is to not make your child exaggerate with sports and intense training before they reach the age of 12.
  • Do they need a six pack? – The linea alba is fibrous structure running in the midline of the abdomen and connecting the pubis to the xiphoid process (bottom of the sternum). It keeps the abdominals (rectus abdominis right and left) together and it will be consolidated up until 12 years old. Make sure your children do not do excessive abs exercises like an adult because this can cause inflammation (tendonitis), diastasis recti (separation of the abdominals) and abdominal herniations.
  • Team sports – Team sports usually requires control of a tool or a ball thrown in the air and grabbed again or passed or received, and needs a specific coordination as well as an ability to forecast where the throw will send the object. This ability of forecast visualising a trajectory starts to develop from the age of 7 and completes around the age of 12 but can be improved with more and more practice. This is why it is common to see children younger than 7 years old missing the ball or having a complete wrong trajectory when throwing. In that sense it is a good advice to suggest team sports from age 7 or even better around the 10th year. Team sports also improve a child’s social ability and cooperation which are very important aspects of daily life. With team sports, a child will learn to continuously adjust their movement with many variables (e.g ball trajectory, team movement) despite he will struggle to forecast them. This type of learning movement is called elastic map.
  • Individual sports – Individual sports are all the activities where there is a single athlete making a repetitive action toward a final goal. These sports are very good for developing coordination (e.g. cycling, swimming, running, gymnastics, snowboarding, ski, etc) and where the variables are related more to force and speed or balance. The learning process is called rigid map (because the situations are always similar) and the child will find it easier because there is no need to forecast. The only variables are related to the terrain conditions (wet, slippery, inclined, etc), equipment, height (diving or jumping from a certain point), space (running in a specific track or landing in a narrow space) or numbers of flips/rotations (box, snowboarding, skateboarding, gymnastics etc. Individual sports are good to increase self-confidence and sense of competition however they can have a lack of sociality.

9. Homemade obstacle course

A good idea to keep your children busy is to build up an obstacle course at home with various tasks in a sequence, along a track or a line. A good starting point is drawing a plan on paper and using any tool or equipment you can find at home (e.g. chairs, blankets, tape, containers, water, bowl, baskets, etc.).

Knowing everything I explained above, I encourage you to use your imagination and try include any type of exercises or motor skill you know. For example you can make a cardboard on the floor as a start and finish then align chairs to climb or pass underneath, a mat to roll or crawl, a ladder to climb, tiles to skip, obstacles to jump, tools to grab and bring, balls to kick and throw, etc. Easily you can find good ideas on YouTube and try also to practice with them to have some good fun all together.

I hope you found these information very interesting and helpful.
Please be in touch if you have any questions.