Spring is here and it’s a great time for families with children to spend time outdoors and together. The Episcopal Center for Children (ECC), a nonprofit organization providing mental health and special education services to children ages 5-14 in the greater Washington, DC area, offers tips to help families.
Being active as a family can benefit everyone. Adults need at least two and a half hours a week of physical activity, and children need 60 minutes a day.
“Several studies have shown that being outside and staying active improves health and well-being for adults and children,” said Dodd White, president and CEO of ECC. “For families supporting children with unique needs, doing activities together outside can promote positive behavior, relieve stress, improve focus, and help everyone in the family be mentally and physically healthier.”
Tip #1 –Set specific activity times for your family. Find time slots throughout the week when your whole family is available. Devote a few of these times to physical activities together outside. Try doing something active after dinner or begin the weekend with a Saturday morning walk.
Tip #2 – Get outside and get moving. Take your dog for a walk. Play “I spy” while walking somewhere. Play in the park or go to the community center. Play tag, hopscotch, or jump rope.
Tip #3 – Cope with any anxieties. If a child is anxious about going outside, bring along a favorite snack and anything familiar and comforting that can help extend “safe” feelings into the outdoors. Take a Teddy Bear Hike where each child brings a favorite stuffed animal along for the adventure.
Tip #4 – Use technology as a supportive tool. Technology can help children coping with special needs transition from indoors to outdoors and help them explore nature. For example, encourage them to use a digital recorder (or your cell phone) to record bird songs, a babbling stream and other pleasing sounds in your yard, the park, or along a trail. When you are back indoors, your child can use these recordings to calm themselves and reduce anxieties.
Tip #5 – Use tech gear to focus. Smartphones, digital cameras and binoculars are a great filter for children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder or autistic spectrum disorders. These items can help them focus on a single feature being observed and remove the extraneous visual stimulation around them.
Tip #6 – Start small. Begin by introducing one new family activity and then add more when you feel everyone is ready. Take the dog for a longer walk, play another ball game, or go to an additional exercise class.
Tip #7 – Use school activities as a jumping board for family activities. Talk about what your children learned at school in gym or physical education class. Ask them to show you what they learned. Help them practice.
Tip #8 – Build new skills. Try yoga, mindfulness practices or dance as a family. There are free resources on the internet and special classes in some communities designed for families and for individuals coping with special needs. Enroll your children in classes they might enjoy such as gymnastics or other sports. Encourage them to practice and go to their activities as a family.
Tip #9 – Plan ahead. Write your activity plans on a family calendar. Let your children help plan the activities. Allow them to check it off after the activity is completed.
Tip #10– Plan for all weather conditions. Have some ideas for indoor activities on standby in case the weather does not cooperate. Try mall walking, indoor basketball, or active video games or board games.
“Once you start getting outside regularly with your child, you will begin to see the results. Symptoms of anxiety, depression and acting out can lessen,” said White. “Self-esteem, focus and participation in social settings may improve too. And hopefully, you’ll be feeling better too.”