Childhood obesity is a hot topic of concern. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), it is one of the most serious global public health challenges for the 21st century. Obese children are more likely to develop serious health problems and become obese adults.
Here in the UK we have one of the highest levels of childhood obesity in Western Europe. Around one third of our children are leaving primary school overweight or obese. What can we do?
Sometimes maintaining a healthy weight seems easier to say than do. The expensive cost of fresh, healthy food options and enticing advertising campaigns for junk food do not help. One of the biggest obstacles we face, is that most children aren’t spending anywhere near enough time playing outdoors.
Running around having fun in the fresh air is how children exercise naturally, blissfully unaware they are getting exercise, just doing it because they love it. So what’s stopping them? The usual suspects, computer screens, parents’ fears for children’s safety, too much homework, tend to take the blame. But children’s choices, diet and physical activity habits are influenced by their surrounding environment. Which means it’s down to us in choosing the environments we create or expose our children to.
The NHS recommends five ways to help children maintain a healthy weight:
- Be a good role model. Children learn by example
- Encourage 60 minutes of physical activity a day
- Keep to child size portions
- Eat healthy meals, drinks and snack
- Less screen time and more sleep
The message is simple. It’s about a good balance of exercise and healthy eating, as a family. Playing outdoors can help fight obesity, because the more a child moves, the more energy and calories they burn (and they will sleep better too!).
The good news is that outdoor play spaces are generally cheaper and easier to access than indoor fitness centres. The back garden is a good place to start!
Here are 10 ideas to help you and your children get more active outdoors:
Say “No” to screens.
It’s hard not to give in to demands and to regard screen time as “downtime”. But getting children to turn them off again can be the worst part. Some experts refer to children’s use of screens as akin to addiction, with similar negative side effects. Challenge your child to go a week without screens and spend that time playing outside instead. You will see a welcome improvement in their happiness and behaviour.
Put together an easy-access outdoor play box.
Stock with wellies, socks, waterproofs, hats, gloves, scarves, sun cream, anything else you need for going outside year round. Keep it by the door so there are no excuses for not going straight outside whatever the weather!
Look after your outdoor space.
It doesn’t have to be pristine (it never will be if children are using it properly!) but cut grass, trim hedges and remove debris so that it is always accessible. Involve the kids – gardening is good exercise too! Choose interesting plants together, to notice seasonally and create sensory experiences year round. Adapt your outdoor space, and it will become part of your home just like the inside, an additional playroom that your children will love.
Invest in outdoor play equipment.
This will depend on your budget but doesn’t have to be expensive. Be creative. Give children chalk or water based paints so they can dress the garden. Let them build dens out of cardboard boxes, sticks and blankets and they will play for hours. Talk to them about what they enjoy and offer incentives. Birthdays might lead to a new ball, a goal post, skittles or a swing. Make it exciting and take the focus away from the indoor plastic toys that cover the carpet and drive you mad!
Children love sharing experiences with family. Make up games, enjoy old favourites like tag and hide and seek. Set good examples by going out together for a walk or bike ride. Scoot to school! Playing in the park, climbing trees, enjoying each other’s company in the fresh air, means they learn to love being active.
Trust your kids.
Don’t overprotect when it comes to outdoor play. We have all fallen and hurt ourselves and kids will too. But they will pick themselves up, learn from their mistakes, look after themselves and not to be afraid of new challenges. These are really good life lessons.
See what is happening at a local park.
Some are really well stocked with active play equipment. Meet with friends and they can run around together. Take bikes and scooters, take the dog or borrow a friend’s!
Get involved with your child’s school.
What facilities do they have for outdoor play? Could groups of families use their outdoor play area during evenings or weekends if open space where you live is limited?
Grow fruit and vegetables.
If space is limited, a window box or pots in the yard are perfect for strawberries, tomatoes, peas and beans. Being active through gardening, talking with children about healthy foods they are growing, is a brilliant way of capturing interest and reinforcing good habits. If they really love it, there may be a local allotment you can join. Schools are making good use of their outdoor spaces, encouraging outdoor learning through planting areas. They usually appreciate volunteers to help maintain them, and run holiday schemes on rotas. It’s good exercise and worth asking your school about getting involved!
Embrace the washing machine!
When children come in filthy from charging around and playing in the mud, you know they have had a good time, and you have done your job!
This is a collaborative post written by Emma.
Emma Homan is an educational copywriter for Pentagon Play and a mother of two who enjoys sharing information on parenting and education at school. Pentagon Play are one of the leading providers of school playground equipment in the UK. You can visit their website here – www.pentagonplay.co.uk