It’s impossible not to see a potential link between some of the consequences of remote and virtual learning schooling for kids. “Kids will fall behind” academically and miss out on socialization are among the common concerns of parents. But often overlooked is the lack of physical activity school-aged children are facing.
Parents need to know the importance exercise has on kids’ development. They also need the tools to implement age-appropriate exercise that includes movement breaks during virtual learning and active play. And yes, there is a place for screen time.
“Play is learning. Movement is learning. The more we move, the more we learn,” said certified fitness professional Yvonne Kusters. “Kids want to move. It’s the natural thing for them to do. As parents, we have to engage in that and help give them an outlet for that.”
The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) recommended toddlers get at least 30-minutes of structured physical activity, and preschoolers 60-minutes daily.
Exercise for children isn’t about weight loss as much as it is for its other physical, mental, emotional, and social benefits. This includes muscle strength, improved motor skill development, cardiorespiratory health, as well as increased self-esteem, developed cognitive thinking, problem-solving practice, and increase in creativity, productivity and focus.
Reducing the risk of childhood obesity is just the cherry on top.
Childhood Obesity: A Pandemic During The Pandemic
According to the American Council on Exercise’s Youth Fitness Manual, “physical inactivity among the world’s populations is now recognized as a pandemic since it has spread widely across regions and human populations.”
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services cites a 2010 study that found children spend more than seven and a half hours in front of a screen whether it’s watching TV, on the computer, or playing video games.
Now add the current pandemic into the mix and what we have is a recipe for sedentary behaviors further linked to sheltering in place and school closures. Plus the added screen time needed for schooling.
The Need To Move
“It’s hard to expect kids to be sitting all day—whether it’s at a desk for four hours or they are sitting behind a computer for four hours,” Sarah Zieden-Weber, a kindergarten, first and second-grade special education teacher in Howell, NJ said. “It’s not developmentally appropriate for kids. They need to be up and moving.”
It is recommended kids take small breaks to get up and move throughout the day. Creator of kids fitness company Let’s Play Today, Yvonne Kuster, said these “brain breaks” can be as short as the length of a song that can be played while encouraging the child to dance.
“Virtual learning is extremely difficult,” said Kusters. “It’s wonderful when teachers and school districts recognize that and they can put in more opportunities for them to get up and move”
Kusters, the YouTuber behind the popular kids’ fitness channel Go With YOYO also recommends kids sitting on a fit ball or try standing for short periods while doing homeschooling.
For kids with special needs, physical movement goes hand-in-hand with mastering skills. “We do a lot of movement in the classroom,” special education teacher and ABA therapist Sarah Zieden-Weber said. “They are going to fatigue when sitting at a desk for that long. And when they fatigue, their frustration levels are higher and their behaviors are going to be increased.”
Children with sensory issues absolutely need to move,” Kusters said. “They need to get on the ground and move with their hands and their feet, and lift heavier things which helps calm down their nervous system.”
She recommends having these children walk on their hands via bear crawling or walk up the wall.
New Jersey mom Dori Newton also knows the importance of movement for learning. Both her special needs 5th-grade daughter and 4th-grade son are virtually learning and have seen cuts in both physical activity and therapies. Since school days are shortened, therapy times are also cut to only be 15-minutes. For 11-year-old Isla, this includes speech and OT twice a week, and PT once a week. The kids have gym class twice a week, but only for 30-minutes each session.
“Learning and exercise—movement of any kind—go hand in hand with any child with needs,” Newton said. “Or any kids in general. We’ve found that both kids are full of nervous energy which can sometimes equate to irritability or even hyperactivity. Movement and exercise help burn it off and allows them to focus more.”
As a runner, triathlete, and Ironman finisher, Newton gets creative. This includes obstacle courses, walking the dog, going on hikes, and even incorporating video games that encourage movement. These are just a few ways the family stays active after extracurricular activities like soccer and dance class were canceled.
Tips For Parents To Promote Actvity
Parents can help encourage physical activity during remote learning in these ways:
1.Have Active Screen Time
Many parents aim to limit screen time, but one solution is to encourage “active screen time.”
“Put on a show that will be a brain break where they are going to get up and move and play,” Kusters said. “Find videos that promote exercise because if the parent isn’t able to help them do it at least they are going to watch their peers and other adults doing and that’s going to inspire them.”
2. Lead By Example
Schedule movement breaks for the whole house. Carve our 5-10 minutes to get up from desks and tables to stretch and move around as a family.
“Parents play a key role in keeping their kids active throughout the day especially during remote learning when we might be moving less,” said Kathleen Tullie, founder and director of BOKS, a kids physical activity program from Reebok. “When parents demonstrate being active, their kids will follow suit,” Tullie added.
The same goes for attitudes associated with exercise. Show a positive attitude when climbing stairs instead of huffing and puffing and complaining. Smile and use positive affirmations, and make your children your cheerleaders when being active.
3.Have Items For Active Play
Leave toys out that promote active play. “You don’t need to go out and buy a ton of equipment. I think you can start simple with the household items you have,” she said.
Try tissues, balloons, paper towel rolls, sofa cushions. Create obstacle courses and freeze dance.
“Have things that kids can play with and as a parent be ready for them to play with it, encourage it,” Kusters said.
4.Write A List
For those who struggle with motivation and fitness creativity indoors, create a list of five things to do each day. Use free online resources to spark ideas.
5. Take Advantage of Warmer Weather
Parents need to continue to encourage kids to be active now that most schools returned to in person. But with summer break just around the corner, parents should continue to promote healthy habits including exercise. This is much easier in the warmer months when children want to play outdoors. Going for a swim, bike ride, or spending an afternoon at the playground are all great ways to remain active with kids and as a family during the summer. Many towns also offer summer camps dedicated to specific sports or that include games that encourage physical activity during the summer.
“Our priority needs to be on exercise movement—even if it’s just for five minutes at a time,” Kusters said. “Our health is our greatest wealth.”