Dad knows how to play with the kids. Do I?
Do you know how to play with your children? I mean really and truly play? When I took an honest inventory of myself, the answer was a big fat N-O. Daddy is the fun one, which is a shame since until recently, the kids spent most of the day with me.
I can schedule the heck out of a Monday, making sure we get in art time, music time, library time, reading time, independent play time, Montessori lesson time, nap time. But to genuinely play with my little ones—I am woefully under-skilled.
As mothers, we are commissioned to teach our children a million and a half things, one of which is to be healthy. But raising healthy kids is more than just what we put in their bodies. It also concerns what we do with our bodies.
Play as Exercise
Everything from reduced anxiety to increased insulin sensitivity to higher self-esteem can be linked to appropriate forms of exercise. When considering how to raise healthy children, exercise is pretty hard to overlook.
Me—I don’t particularly care for exercise. My brain understands it is vital, but I still don’t want to do it. The thought of adding it to my massive list of “Things My Kids Absolutely Have to Know” is daunting.
But then I realized exercise and play are the same thing. Our ancestors were not taking their preschool-aged children to run on a treadmill while watching The View three days a week. They weren’t doing bicep curls or tricep extensions. They were playing.
Play comes so naturally to children and also meets vital mental, emotional, relational, and physical needs (for a primer on play, check out Mark Sisson’s Definitive Guide and Lost Art of Play posts). It may not look like exercise because it is so much fun, but it’s still exercise.
For little ones, fitness is opportunistic and looks like play. They run when they feel like running. They climb when they see something worth climbing. They duck, crawl, bend, twist, turn. As they get taller, their motions just get bigger. Follow any tall-ish little boy (or short-ish teenage boy) around and you will see him jump up to tap the door frame as he passes through. Every time. They see an opportunity for “exercise” and they take it.
As adults, fitness is a priority that we schedule into our calendars. For the longest time, I thought exercise was 30 minutes on the treadmill and 1000 crunches (seriously—a thousand). I slowly moved toward the elliptical, pilates, yoga, workout videos, strength training, or high intensity intervals until I gave up and just started eating healthy so I wouldn’t have to exercise at all (note: exercise is still important, even if you eat well).
When I attended a MovNat seminar, I was awakened. Moving is our birthright—our true nature—and doesn’t need to be restricted to a stationary bike. About 45 minutes into the 8-hour workshop, I realized I needed to do some serious paradigm-shifting to reframe what exercise and fitness really looks like. Yes, all of the above activities count as exercise, but I needed to recognize they weren’t the only ways to exercise and I could do things differently.
So how does someone shake their preconceived notions of “proper” exercise?
Watch your kids. They will teach you how to play and how to exercise at the same time. So far, my son has taught me to:
- walk on the edge of a cliff (balancing)
- duck under tree branches (lunges)
- climb up mountains (bear crawl)
- climb down mountains (crab walk)
- avoid hot lava (jumping, diving, rolling)
- lay still in the grass because a gator is nearby (planks)
- bunny hop (the equivalent of jumping rope)
- avoid being discovered by hiding behind the bed (squats)
- move with broken legs (army crawl)
- pretend-eat something off the ground (push-ups)
The games he invents are even better.
- Hide and seek. You can crawl to your destination, get into strange positions, and broad jump throughout the house.
- Tag. A whole lot of running, dodging (agility work), and giggling.
- Tightrope Walker. We have a 2×4 in our living room, but practicing balance can be on the curb, on the cracks in the tile, or on a low wall. The tightrope walker can also have bonus challenges, such as lunging, crawling, squatting, crab walking, you name it.
If you are low on inspiration, books never fail. Along with Gulliver Snip by Julia Kay, other useful books are We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, Eight Silly Monkeys, and anything with animals.
Opportunistic Fitness in Real Life
The following video is a brief example from Eric Carle’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear. It’s only 90 seconds and confined to one room for video’s sake, but my kids could imitate animals for hours, which means the whole family gets in a workout.
And here’s the beauty of all this. As mothers with a million and a half things on our Must-Teach List—you can scratch off exercise. Just like breathing, our kids were born with the knowledge and they will teach us how to play and exercise if we listen.