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Let’s Exercise – Natural Kids In The City

30 October, 2010

It can often seem like the city is cramped and kids don’t have enough space to move in the city, but it doesn’t have to be like that.

In Australia, our cities and suburbs are filled with playgrounds, public sporting fields and parks that are nothing but wide open spaces. There are also National Parks (like State Forests or Reserves) with open spaces to explore and paths for hiking (bushwalking). Living in another country may mean that there aren’t as many public spaces around for moving those large muscle groups, but they are around, you may just have to look harder.

Most large cities around the world will have at least one major park with wide open spaces for children to run around in. Some allow ball games, bike riding, roller skates and scooters, while others don’t. Many have trees to climb or equipment to play on. Some have picnic tables or you can bring your own food and dine outside.

If you can afford it, cities have a wide range of outdoor activities available to children. While team sports are the most obvious option, there are numerous other organisations, such as the Scouting Movement, that offer a variety of non-competitive outdoor activities, such as camping, hiking, abseiling and rock climbing.

Walking is a great way to move our bodies and, if we combine it with errands, we can save money and greenhouse emissions as well. A wander around your local neighbourhood can also be a great chance to explore. You may find beautiful gardens, small ethnic or corner stores and parks that you never knew were there!

There are also many indoor activities that can help keep kids active. Creating obstacle courses in the living area with sheets, chairs, tables, cushions and whatever else you can find, can be a great wet weather activity. There are also many kids DVDs around that encourage kids to move their bodies, whether dancing along with The Wiggles or doing a more structured exercise routine. Even putting on an upbeat CD and dancing around the living area can be great fun and a great way to move our bodies.

Even gaming consoles can be made more body friendly. The Wii encourages more movement than other consoles but is not foolproof – one of my friends tells me that she has caught her son lying on the lounge “playing” tennis. You can purchase dance mats for the Playstation – some go with specific dancing games but there are also mats available that replace the back-forward-left-right keypad that can really encourage movement. Exercise bikes with video games installed are another option but very expensive and space consuming for something with such a limited use.

Creative use of community resources can be helpful. Many fast food establishments have play equipment for the use of customers. You don’t need to purchase their food! I often put a donation in the collection box at one popular fast food establishment in exchange for the use of their services, or you can buy a bottle of water! Other stores and shopping centres (malls) have small play areas that can be used for free. In Australia we also have an emerging market of “play centres”. These loud, brightly lit warehouses are full of jumping castles, slides and all kinds of climbing equipment however they are not at all “natural”. They may be useful as an occasional treat, but can be quite expensive.

On a personal note, I find it really important to get my kids to be active, without making it seem like work, or exercise. We move our bodies because we enjoy it and because it makes us fit and healthy and strong, not because we are burdened by the need to lose weight. I am making a habit of choosing to walk when we could otherwise drive meaning we are walking with a purpose in mind (to get to the shops, for example) and not just walking to get fit. We kick a ball around or chase each other because it is fun not because we burn calories.

We own a few exercise DVDs; mostly for adults although we have one for children. My four and a half year old and three year old love to follow along with me and get their own exercise mats out (towels) to participate with me. When they become frustrated I just tell them to do their best and it doesn’t matter if they can’t do it all yet.

Since we don’t have a back yard or a safe space to play outdoors in our block, we often arrange play dates at playgrounds or at friends’ houses who have backyards. We still have visitors to our home, but whenever we are with others I encourage my children to go outside to play. Even if they just sit and draw outside, the fresh air and sunshine are good for them.

There is very little equipment needed for keeping kids active. A hat (for outdoor play) and a well-fitting, secure pair of shoes (preferably enclosed) are all that are needed. A ball, a skipping rope, a bat or a frisbee are nice additions (and fun too) but aren’t essential. Encourage kids to drink lots of water to quench their thirst after exercise, and keep the sports drinks for sports people.

If you are able to spend a little bit more on some gear for active play, then look for items that can be used in multiple ways. A tennis ball can be used for tennis, cricket, baseball, handball and any number of improvised games. A golf club is not as versatile. A cheap large ball can be a soccer-ball, a basket-ball, a volley-ball, a tunnel-ball, a dodge-ball or used in many other games. Other non-sporting equipment can also encourage active, outdoor play. Bug catchers, shovels and buckets, butterfly nets, binoculars, compasses and magnifying glasses encourage outdoor play. It might not be as physically tiring as sports but still encourages more use of large muscle groups than indoor play.

A little creative thinking and a bit of effort can give you a variety of ways to keep kids active that are suited to individual environments, temperaments and budgets.

This article first appeared in Natural Child Magazine.

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