Lazy Days of Summer: How to keep children active all year long

SBM: lazy-days-of-summer-how-to-keep-children-active-all-year-long

Dori Pekmezi, PhD; University of Alabama at Birmingham
Linda Trinh, PhD; University of Toronto
Diane Ehlers, PhD; University of Nebraska Medical Center
Jennette Moreno, PhD; Baylor College of Medicine

It is known that children are less active over summer break. A recent study among children 6 to 9 years of age showed that physical activity dropped by 53% during the summer months. Moreover, time spent in sedentary activities (e.g., screen time) increases. According to the national survey data, children watch more television (+18+ minutes/day) over summer break than during the school year.

There are many possible reasons for these seasonal differences in physical activity. School days typically involve regular physical activity sessions (e.g., recess, PE class) and limited screen time, which may have a protective effect on children’s health behaviors. The structured days hypothesis suggests that disruptions in such routines are responsible for lower physical activity levels over the summer. However, parents also play a role. Past research found that third and fourth grade parents restricted screen time during the school year to encourage homework completion and then relaxed these rules once school was out of session.

Declines in physical activity over the summer can have adverse effects on children’s health (e.g., weight gain). Numerous studies have shown that body mass index increases more in the summer than in other seasons. Excess weight gain can lead to obesity and poorer metabolic, cardiovascular, respiratory, and mental health for children. Overweight/obese, low income, Black, and Hispanic children are at increased risk for summer surges in body mass index. Thus, physical activity in the summer months is critical for children’s health.

What the Experts Say

Dr. Jennette Moreno from Baylor College of Medicine is an SBM member and content expert with the following advice.

What tips do you have for parents to keep kids active during summer?

Tip 1: Infuse structure into your child’s summer. During the school year, children have to get up and get going, but this may not be the case during the summer. Set up a routine that gets them moving. This may involve going to summer camp, taking walks, going to swim lessons, or just having a standing playdate with friends. Also going to bed at a similar time during the summer as during the school year will help your child to be rested and active the next day.

Tip 2: Be prepared for the weather. Heat, humidity, and inclement weather are common barriers to outdoor physical activity. Take advantage of mornings before it really heats up. Water activities can help beat the heat, but also have indoor physical activity options ready to go, like online yoga and PE videos geared towards kids. My kids love dance parties, playing twister, turning board games into active play by running after the dice and adding jumping jacks in between turns. On bad weather days, check out local climbing gyms, indoor playgrounds, or bowling alleys.

Tip 3: Place limits on screen time. If given the choice, many kids will pick screen time over going outside to play. However, if screen time is limited, they may find something more active to do. One idea is to set your devices to not be accessible during school hours (even during summer) and only allow a pre-specified number of hours of screen time. This is how my kids got into designing obstacle courses outside.

Tip 4: Find a buddy. Kids are more likely to be active when other kids are around. Scheduling playdates, getting involved in a local kids group like scouts or a sports team are great ways to help kids maintain social relationships and encourage active play during summer.

How can schools/communities help kids stay active over the summer? What about public health practitioners and policy makers-how can they help?

Teachers often ask children to read, journal, and practice math facts during summer. I would love to see schools design physical activity curriculars for kids to do at home during summer and keep the playgrounds open and accessible. Other important ways to help promote physical activity among children during summer is to make sure all families have access to high-quality affordable childcare during summer. As well as encouraging walkable neighborhoods in which children regardless of socioeconomic status have access to safe parks, playgrounds, splash pads, and public swimming pools within walking distance of their homes.

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