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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Our Children's Health: Parents Should Take the Lead

I just finished writing an installment on Our Children: Nosh and (Lack of) Exercise inspired by an article in last week's OU Newsletter. This week I was quite pleasantly surprised to see the topic of exercise as the topic of Rabbi Ginsberg's weekly column in the Yated. Seems everyone is in agreement that our children are too sedentary.

In my own post I argued that when it comes to fitness and exercise I was of the belief that this is an area where schools must take the lead. I will admit, I have a huge bias. I would probably be anything but physically fit if my parents were expected to set the example and be involved in many other ways besides providing transportation to events, moral support, and footing the bill. Neither of my parents are athletic, although my father did start exercising regularly when I was younger, late in the evening, to keep his cholesterol and weight under control. Fortunately I was involved in sports outside of school and my middle school, in particular, had a varied and comprehensive physical education program that was quite challenging.

Rabbi Ginsberg takes the stance that parents must lead their child to live more active lives by setting the example and helping encourage their interests. While I appreciate the sentiment and am usually the first person saying, "it's the parents job," I really think encouraging athletic activity has to, at the very least, be a partnership between school and parent, although I would say the schools really should take the lead here.

The primary reason for that might simply be because the kids are at school for an awfully long time and parents also have demanding schedules. At 5, 6, or 7PM, few parents can think about taking the kids out for an hour of physical activity when there is dinner to cook, baths to take, homework to assist with, and bedtime. A good, daily workout should be completed well before 5PM. Most parents don't even see their school age children until that time.

Other reasons include the lack of facilities and equipment, the lack of know-how (proper technique to prevent injury really should be a priority), and demands of other children. One more note after spending much of my day supervising bike riding of my own children and a neighbor's child, it is really hard to spend an afternoon *supervising* playtime. I'm probably a generation before my time since I grew up in a small area where kids were free to roam, but as soon as I could ride a bike, my parents basically said go enjoy and check in occassionally. Today, few parents can or are willing to let their kids roam and, as such, kids are basically under house arrest because it is really difficult to drop everything and just supervise. What a shame. (We didn't wear helmets riding our bikes either!)

The article is reprinted in full below. As you will see, I highlighted one sentence about children playing electronic games during recess. If electronic games are being playing in Yeshiva/Day Schools, the solution is simple: do not allow electronic distractions on campus. If kids didn't have a handheld Gameboy, cell phone, etc, perhaps they would jump rope or play soccer!

A Healthy Thought

by Rabbi S. Binyomin Ginsberg,
dean, Torah Academny, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Every year, as Lag Ba’omer approaches, my mind rewinds to my childhood memories of those fabulous trips to the park. We would use our bow and arrows, play some team sport and enjoy a picnic lunch. I might have enjoyed it most because it was the only day of the year that we had such an activity. However, as I reflect on my youth, the only ball I ever recall playing with was a small blue ball. We used it for games we would create and play on our steps and we would play punch-ball with it. I think I was 15 or 16 when I was introduced to football and basketball. I am not sure why I wasn’t ‘into sports’ (either as a participant or a follower). Perhaps it was because I was not the athletic type. When I was growing up, the benefits of being active and fit were not heavily promoted. My parents did provide me with a membership to the Y and I recall my father z”l encouraging me to go swimming. After all, as the Gemara states, a father is obligated to teach his child how to swim.

As a principal of a school, I see the role that sports play in the lives of most of our children. While there needs to be limits and we have to make sure that sports don’t take the children away from their studies and other obligations, being active and playing sports have many advantages. Yes, there are some who overdo it and there are some children who need lots of help in dealing with the competitive aspect of sports. However, generally speaking, I would say that children are not active enough on a day-to-day basis. Now, with the onset of more pleasant weather, that can change. However, the adults in the lives of children must take a more active role in getting them to be more active.

When I was a child, if I remember correctly, we had several choices as to how we could spend our free time. We would read, play a board game, ride a bike, or play kugelach. A child who wasn’t active in sports was probably doing one of these activities. Today, a child who is not active physically might spend his time with one of many activities that can be very problematic. With the availability of thousands of computer games and numerous types of electronic games, a child who is not active in sports today is probably much too sedentary.

I encourage you to take a look at what happens in many schoolyards during recess. Many children are playing with handheld electronic games instead of being active. Fortunate are those schools that have physical education as part of their program. Otherwise, who knows what physical activity these children would get?

Many people don’t understand that there are many reasons why it is important for children to be active. It is not just so that the children should stay fit. Children need regular physical activity and exercise in order to help them build strong bones and muscles. I find it amazing that exercise seems to be the cure for so many illnesses and aliments. One of the first recommendations of any cardiologist to a heart patient is, “Walk, walk, walk.” If exercise can be such a cure, I can only imagine how much it can prevent.

I once had a student who had great difficulty sleeping at night and he couldn’t remain alert and focused during the day. His parents had tried many different programs, and they finally went back to the basics - exercise. It was amazing how after a short period of daily exercise, this child was able to sleep well at night and he became a different student during the day.

What is the best way to get your child to be active? If you know me, you already know the answer. You must be active yourself and you must set the example for your children. I must admit that I hesitated writing about this topic because I personally set a poor example for others in this area. I wish I had been encouraged to be more active as a child and I wish physical activity would be a part of who I am. Therefore, I am putting aside my own personal practices and addressing this issue in the hope that others won’t make the same mistake I have. In addition, there is a slight possibility that by speaking about the issue, I may be influenced myself to start some serious exercising.

For some reason, when it comes to exercise, we see different extremes. People either take it too seriously or not seriously enough. I recall that in the short period of time that I did have exercise as part of my routine, it was at an extreme level.

When encouraging children to exercise, I would like to suggest that we pay close attention to ensure that it doesn’t overtake the life of the child. We must teach them that it is the small steps that can make a huge difference.

Habit is the word that comes to my mind when I think about getting children to be active. While some forms of exercise are grueling, they become much easier when they are done regularly and out of habit. If you want to see how challenging it is to get into the habit of walking an extra mile for exercise, allow me to suggest that you park yourself in a crowded parking lot and watch what happens. In all likelihood, you will observe people driving around and around trying to find a parking spot that is as close as possible to where they have to go. People who don’t understand the importance of exercise end up avoiding any of the day-to-day opportunities for movement. These people take an elevator to go up or down two floors instead of walking up or down a couple of flights of stairs.

It is important for parents not to get discouraged if their child is not interested in joining some form of organized sport. There are some children who are just not competitive by nature and prefer to partake in noncompetitive activities. The real trick is to determine the specific areas of interest of the child and build around those areas of interest.

If you think about it, our children get slower and slower as they get older. When they are toddlers, we wish they would slow down somewhat, and when they get older, we wish they would be more mobile. It is our challenge to ensure that our children remain active or even increase their exercise as they get older. It is important for parents to reach an understanding of their children’s ability and interest in various activities and sports. Our job is to support their interests and help them develop the necessary interest in being as active as possible.

10 comments:

Mike S. said...

It is important to emphasize that exercise need not only be from sports and activities designed specifically for exercise. When I was little it was taken for grnted that elementary school students could walk half a mile to school, or ride their bikes.

And this is true for adults, too. Adults need regular exercise and are capable of walking or biking to work, errands, and other regular activities. many who are to far to bike or walk to work could at least bike or walk to the train station. With the price of gas what it is, that makes economic sense too.

Rae Pica said...

Thank you, Mike! Organized sports and exercises aren't even developmentally appropriate for young children. They should simply be running and jumping and playing -- and, yes, walking.

There's research showing that the most active children are those whose parents expect them to be active. Children whose mothers and fathers are physically active are also less sedentary. Again, that doesn't necessarily mean they're playing racquetball three times a week or are regularly visiting the health club. If parents simply think in terms of active weekends and vacations -- going to the park, to the beach, on a hike, roller skating, kite flying, etc. -- we'd have families who are not only healthier but happier!

rachel said...

SL: You are making a good point that regular excercise needs to be part of school curriculum. A kid coming home at 6 simply won't have time to do much, even if it's to ride a bike for 30 min. But to wait for school to do something about it is simply foolish. Most schools will cut PE to the bare minimum in the name of bittul Torah or more math depending on the school's hashkafa. Unless parents (tuition paying parents preferably) go to their principal and demand more PE it's simply not going to happen for a very long time.
(And I'm just talking about having more PE, not about parents and students taking it seriously. In the school where I worked the PE teacher once tried to fail a students for simply not doing anything. The wrath of the mother was amazing :) )
What to do? I would not wait for schools to do anything but start at home. Now we live in a community where the all the kids and adults ride bikes everywhere, many people simply don't have cars, so being active is easier.

JS said...

I just have one question: How does one play kugelach?

Anonymous said...

"How does one play kugelach?"

It's similar to jacks. 5 metal cubes in which you have to do various tasks with them, building up to higher and higher levels of difficulty. When I was a kid, everyone had a set, and everyone played regularly.

Mark

triLcat said...

eek! it's hamesh avanim!!! kugelach?? You yiddishistim have ruined it!

Even if you can't let your kids roam the neighborhood free, they can jump rope right outside the house or throw a ball or frisbee around in the yard.

ProfK said...

Even if you can't get outside there are ways to get moving indoors. There are plenty of audio and video tapes that have varied and fun exercises to do. Girls seem to love the dance tapes. When I had play group for my son we regularly played the animal exercise game. We pranced like horses, stomped like bulls, wriggled like snakes, hopped like frogs--you get the idea. Went on until we ran out of living creatures. The kids loved it and they were moving.

anonymous mom said...

Have you heard of the game "Coma?" Everyone lies on the floor completely still. The person who can do this the longest wins. Really.

Commenter Abbi said...

I don't know, it's just not hard for me to keep my kids active. Granted, they are only 5 and 2.5 (and newborn), but we go to the park almost every day, and they both have play time in their preschools. Even if they're a bit tired, once we get out, they always enjoy a run around for at least a half hour. What is so hard about this? And don't most Americans have fancy playsets in their backyards? I'm confused.

Michaela said...

Response to commenter abbi:
The issue is school aged children. They get out of school late; they have mountains of homework; and the neighbors will think you are a neglectful parent if you allow your child to play outside without adult supervision. And for Jews in New York, the only fancy playsets are in the park several blocks away. (I do have to say that I LOVE NYC playgrounds. No dirt, no sand, no woodchips, just this amazing foam cushioning. That playground equipment is tax money well-spent.)