By: Michael R. Mantell, Ph.D.
“OK, Rebecca, Kayla and Max, Mommy is going to the gym so you kids behave and listen to daddy.” Sound familiar? Of course it does. Going to the gym for many moms, and yes dads, is time off, a chance for renewal, for developing real health and happiness.
But what about your children? Is “…behave and listen to daddy” the best you can offer them? What about, “…and you kids be sure you are playing, exercising, and having fun too while mommy does the same at the gym.” As someone who provides mental strength and performance coaching to developing and elite athletes, I can tell you that encouraging young children to enjoy free-play is a critical building block in their overall health—emotional, physical and intellectual.
Many parents believe, inaccurately, that focusing their young children’s physical activities on sport specific training trumps more general types of movement, exercise and activity. It doesn’t. Like you, needing proper warm-up time before you begin any specific exercise, think of your children’s free-play as their warm-up time for later focused athletic training. And if they aren’t headed towards becoming world-class tennis, soccer, baseball, basketball or football players, then think of their free-play as benefitting them in a thousand other ways to build a base for lifetime health and fitness.
When you are headed to they gym, keep these three points in mind:
1. Free-play means just that. Running, jumping, playing catch, skipping, playing in the grass, and riding their bikes all build essential balance, mobility, endurance and strength. Sounds like fun, right?
2. That leads to the second point. Don’t forget to play in the dirt with them when you come home from the gym, work, or shopping. Remember how you played outside until it was time to come in for dinner (or in my case when the street lights went on)? Show them how you can enjoy hopscotch, hula-hoops, dodge ball (easy does it) and they’ll love it too.
3. Focus on the process not the outcome. Our bodies were made for movement, exercise, and activity. Why? To keep us healthy and have fun, not just for winning a game, getting a scholarship or a trophy. Emphasize the value of fun, happiness, and enjoyment with your young children, not losing weight, building muscle or getting an athletic free ride to UCLA. There’s plenty of time for focusing on sport-specific skill building in those children and early adolescents who show interest, desire and proficiency in a focused sport.
4. Along the same lines of process, not outcome, be sure to keep your praise for your youngsters on their effort, determination, and resolve instead of their winning. “Daddy told me that you guys really had fun and enjoyed racing in the backyard when mommy was at the gym…that’s so terrific!”
This sure beats video games and donuts, doesn’t it?