child jumping in the grass
Dance class. Gym class. Soccer practice. Swim meet. Music lessons. Play dates. How many activities is your child involved in on a weekly basis? When you remember your growing-up days, do you think blissfully of the unstructured summer days of freedom or the regular round of weekly activities?

Activities aren’t bad for kids by any means. But, with so many options, it’s tough to say no and leave some unfettered, unstructured, free time for our children so they can learn how to be active and creative without instruction from a teacher, coach or parent. Try rethinking the activities your child is involved in and encouraging some active, free play time instead. 

First, set a reasonable limit on the number of activities you’ll agree to on a regular basis.
Your guidelines should be your budget (classes and sports gear cost money), your schedule and your family’s lifestyle. If you and your spouse both work from home, having a few more activities might not be so bad. But for most families, “together” time is a rarity and we need to guard it; remember that every activity you say yes to means you’re saying no to something else, something like a family walk in the park, a move night or a hike through the woods.

Second, build active family habits.
Kids who grow up in active families will grab onto those habits and incorporate them into their adult lives. When what your family does for fun is get out and hike a trail, or ride bikes together, or go swimming, or rock collecting, or kick a ball around in the yard, or go to the gym together, you’re not only investing in your own health and energy level but you’re teaching your children that fun is a lot more than sitting in front of the television or computer. As our world becomes more and more media-centric, it’s important to have regular, physical, non-screen-related things happening in your family.

Third, get outside and get the kids outside.
Depending on the ages and the outside area you have available to you, you may not be able to just send your kids out to play. If you can, do! There is absolutely nothing better to foster a child’s individuality and creativity than to allow them plenty of unstructured time in this huge, complex, beautiful earth. Kids may wave the “I’m bored!” flag, but don’t worry; the stage just past boredom is called creativity. Let them struggle through the initial boredom and they will find literal worlds to explore. Don’t oversee or entertain. Just give them the space and the time outside and they will figure out what to do with it.

Fourth, be adventurous and try new active pursuits.
If your child shows an ongoing interest in snowboarding, skating or rock-climbing, why not try it out together? Instead of immediately signing your child up for the next available class (or immediately saying, “No way!”), go out to the slopes as a family, learn the sport together, and then decide if it’s something worth pursuing further. You’ll all learn new skills, stay active and build up a log of family adventures. And as your children see you conquering your fears to try new, active things with them, they’ll learn to be bold and courageous themselves.

Even if extreme sports are too costly or, well, extreme, a weekend spent fishing and camping, planting a garden or volunteering to help a friend move will add up to memories of active outdoor time spent together, and experiences that will encourage your children towards an active lifestyle, even when there’s not a parent, teacher or coach in sight.

Image: Tanya Little