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“Activate” Your Children

I spend a great deal of time telling you how to watch better television, play "nice" video games, and decipher media messages. But with summer around the corner there comes a time when you need to help the kids "unplug" and find some new engaging activities—at least until it rains.

“It's really important to build a solid foundation of physical activity with the time children have.”

My recognition for this need was reawakened when I happened to meet one of Canada's Olympic champions at a television station a few weeks ago. Silken Laumann is a competitive rower, and she has overcome incredible odds to claim her Olympic medals. In 1992, while training for the Olympic Games in Spain, the acclaimed rower was hit by another rowing skull (a fancy name for a type of boat Olympians row). The collision injured her legs to the point where doctors advised she would never row again.

Yet, after five operations over ten days, the determined athlete was back rowing just 27 days after the accident. She went on to win a bronze medal at Barcelona, and a silver in Atlanta in 1996.

As impressive as Silken's rowing is, it's her "other job" that made me sit up and listen. In between making motivational speeches and assisting with numerous charities, Silken is a mother two children (ages 6 and 8), and she's very careful about what they do in their spare time.

"About 30% of Canadian kids spend about 4 hours a night watching television and 36% are overweight. That's not what their bodies should or want to be doing," claims Silken, who says she decided against getting cable in favor of selecting videos to watch on the weekend, when her kids also get an hour of time on the computer. Otherwise, there is no "screen time" during the week.

"There's a lot of great entertainment for kids on TV and on the Xbox, but there isn't that many hours in the day. By the time children are home, and done with dinner and homework, it's really important to build a solid foundation of physical activity with the time they have left," she says.

In her new book, Child's Play: Rediscovering the Joy of Play in Our Families and Communities, Silken looks at a variety of factors contributing to increased childhood obesity. Two common threads involve how television is used in the home, and if the family eats together. Kids with TVs in their bedrooms who are also allowed to eat alone, are far more likely to become obese. On the contrary, families who share mealtimes usually are less likely to have overweight children.

The solution, according to this athlete, is something we should all know how to do. Before you sign your child up for a multitude of teams and activities, Silken advises that we have forgotten the need to simply "play," a skill she feels many children simply don't comprehend.

Admonishing that, "Kids have a right to play," she advises, "It's important that we recognize childhood is not a mini-adulthood. It's a unique time in a child's development, and we can bring it back because we are a generation of parents who know how to play."

She is particularly concerned that professional sports role models have left parents with the idea that they must get their child started early in order to be the next big celebrity.

"Parents are afraid of missing this optimal time in a child's development. They reason if a child is going to play soccer at eight years old, they need to start her at five. The next thing we find is the time in our schedule is very limited. We go from dinner to activity to activity," says Silken, suggesting kids spend more time in the minivan than they do being physically active. "Our tendency as parents is they need exercise, so we enroll them in more things."

Recalling her childhood, she remembers playing simple games like tag or ad hoc team sports. "Kids in a field without any equipment can invent a game and go exploring. When I see a group of kids heading to the park, they experience joy."

One of the reasons she feels many community parks are devoid of children is fear. In answer to that, she has started a program called Play in the Park that involves a small commitment from parents.

"We ask parents if they are willing to supervise their community park one day a week," she says, and then remarks about additional benefits beyond fitness. "We've noticed since Play in the Park began, parents are getting to meet one another and the community gets to know each other. Suddenly the community is working together and kids are walking to school."

For Silken, these changes in our society weren't evident to her until she had her own children. Since then, she feels being physically well is one of the "essential pieces to living your best life," and she counsels parents to turn off the TV and "put on their running shoes" and get involved in simple, unstructured play with their kids.

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If you want more information about "Child's Play" -- Silken's new book, check http://www.amazon.ca/exec/obidos/ASIN/0679314067. Note this is Amazon's Canadian website. Unfortunately, at this time, her book is not yet available on the U.S. site.

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