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Physical fitness is fun for kids, vital to development

Thompson offers creative ideas for healthy & kid-friendly indoor/outdoor activities

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Involving kids in kitchen creations is another way to encourage healthy eating. (Metro Creative Graphics)

WORTHINGTON — If you think you’re bouncing off the walls after months of confinement, imagine what the pandemic shutdown has been like for young families.

What’s a parent to do? And how vital is it to get your little ones away from screens and moving their limbs?

Listen to what local early childhood expert Tara Thompson has to say.

“Physical activity contributes to optimal brain functioning,” said Thompson, District 518’s Early Childhood Coordinator since 2000.

“Our bodies learn as a whole, so we need to make sure we incorporate physical activity.

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“And physical activity also helps curb obesity, so it’s good to instill healthy lifestyles from a young age.”

Thompson’s career has focused on humans from birth through age 5. Her knowledge of what children need, and why, is deep and wide.

And movement hits the top of her list.

“Young children use their entire bodies to learn,” she advocated. “And what they learn is how their body moves and how they can control those movements.

“That’s a very important growth and development piece, so you need to give them time to explore large [as well as small] motor movements.”

Keeping it all fun is part of the parenting game as well.

“It’s also joyful,” she said. “Laughter and running around may be involved, and that’s a good outlet for anxiety and stress.

“Given the pandemic, the importance of that outlet is multiplied, but adults aren’t always good at understanding why kids do what they do,” Thompson continued.

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“We don’t always think about the fact that kids can be stressed, too, and that’s another reason to get them engaged in physical activity.”

Thompson readily produces a list of creative ways — both inside and outside — for frazzled parents and caregivers to help kids burn energy and calories while simultaneously strengthening their minds and bodies.

Indoor fun

While Thompson urges caregivers to get their kids out in the fresh air, however chilly it may be, she knows that’s not a round-the-clock option in winter.

“In the coldest weather months, you can’t always stay outside for lengthy amounts of time,” Thompson said.

Her first tip?

Turn on your phone, iPod, radio, cassette player or any delivery mode at hand for music.

“Put on the music,” emphasized Thompson. “Dance, be silly, have fun.

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“Consider adding in a scarf or ribbon and encourage your child to move around according to the moods created by the music, and express that through different movements with the accessories.”

Don’t have ice skates? Break out the paper plates.

“Put your feet on paper plates and pretend to ‘skate’ around an indoor area — that’s a ton of fun,” promised Thompson.

“Or pretend the floor is made of lava and you have to get from one side of the room to the other — and you can’t touch the floor because it’s hot lava,” Thompson said.

Toss down pillows, cushions or blankets to create a stepping-stone path across the “lava,” she suggested.

Similarly, Thompson said making a construction paper path can engage the entire family.

“Hop or jump from one piece of paper to another,” said Thompson. “While you’re doing that, have them name the color of the paper they’re on, and if they have their colors down, place dots on the paper and have them count.

“You can accommodate a progression of learning skills this way, with written numbers or animals [think: animal sounds].”

Indoor “snowball” fights with crumpled-up paper are favorites.

“Maybe create ‘forts’ to go with it — you’re in this one, I’m in that one — and have a ‘fight,’ pick up your balls, return to your fort and start all over again,” said Thompson.

She also mentioned getting a “really inexpensive Nerf ball hoop” to encourage large motor movement.

And … think outside the box — maybe all the way to the sandbox.

“What kind of small- or large-motor equipment do you have outside that could work inside?” queried Thompson.

“A small slide? A mini trampoline? This year, I know some families that have brought kids’ bikes inside and propped up the back wheels so kids can pedal them without going anywhere.”

Or try jumping jacks, an indoor obstacle course, pencil rolls across the carpet or a “balance beam” crafted of string or masking tape so kids can practice balancing and walking heel to toe (or toe to heel).

Winter wonderland works

It’s a fallacy, says Thompson, that winter weather is bad for kids.

“Fresh air is vital for our bodies,” she said, “and cold air alone will not make your child sick.”

Her ideas for outdoor activities in this season fall fast and thick as snowflakes.

“The first that come to mind are sledding, skating, snowball fights, building a fort, making snow angels or just going for a walk,” said Thompson.

Rather than considering summertime pursuits off-limits because the thermometer reads 20 degrees and not 70, Thompson suggests a different mindset.

“If you typically go to a playground in the summer, bundle up and go to that same playground in the winter,” urged Thompson.

“Children can experience the same venue but use it differently in different weather.

“It’s a familiar place but with snow on the ground, and that allows for exploration and observations — maybe it’s icicles, or you can say, ‘In summer we do this, in winter we do this,’ so good conversations and comparisons can result.”

Fill a water bottle with colored water, suggests Thompson, and make pictures in the snow.

“Or give your child various objects to use for scooping and dumping — like a plastic laundry detergent scoop they can pack with snow and create a wall of cubes,” she said.

“Unplug from the screens and enjoy going to the fresh outdoors,” Thompson said.

“It’s important for children to see the adults in their lives do those things too. You might join them sometimes and not at other times, but it’s great for young and older people alike.”

Snack time surprises

And, as Thompson puts it, “What’s more fun than coming in from the cold outdoors to enjoy a cup of cocoa and a special snack?”

Involving kids in kitchen creations is another way to encourage healthy eating.

“Hands-on in the kitchen for 3-year-olds doesn’t have to mean making an entire meal, but let them take a scoop each of Goldfish crackers, raisins, pretzels and chocolate chips to make a small snack mix,” noted Thompson.

“That’s something they can eat after outdoor play time, it promotes pincer grasp and hand-eye coordination and they develop a sense of pride and joy in knowing, ‘Hey, I did this.’”

Lifelines for parents

Thompson knows that with small kids at home, the days can be long — but the years go fast, so it’s vital for the adults in kids’ lives to try modeling behavior that will launch little ones into healthy habits.

“The five years from birth to kindergarten go pretty quickly,” agreed Thompson.

“Think back to things you did when you were young and consider the memories you’d like to replicate for your own children,” said Thompson.

She also cautioned to be mindful of potentially negative effects.

“Parents should always be aware of the screen time their children — and they as adults — are logging,” said Thompson.

“A willingness to move away from it and offer other opportunities to explore, learn and develop in different ways is important, because hands-on learning is a concrete way for young children to learn, explore and make observations.”

When at their wits’ end, parents might try “timing” children to make tedious tasks — like picking up toys or books — more exciting.

“Many children like it when you say, ‘I’m going to time you; see how fast [or slow] you can do this,’” said Thompson. “It adds a slight competitive edge to the activity.”

Above all, getting through the pandemic while keeping kids active and healthy is the main goal.

“Stay vigilant, continue being patient — and there’s hope,” said Thompson.

“I know that may be difficult for some families to handle right now, but hope will carry us through.

“Focus on the positives; focus on what you can do and on what is available to you rather than on what you can’t do.”

For more information about District 518’s early childhood programming, call 727-1207.

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