How Play and Diet Impacts Your Child’s Behavior

To play is to learn in a child’s world. For healthy development, a child must be given an enormous amount of time to play each and every day. In our world of high achievers, childhood play unfortunately tends to fall by the wayside. It comes in as distant 2nd to everyone’s busy lifestyles.

Why is this?

Parents want it all for their kids. Kids are involved in many activities as they try to keep up with one another by winning trophies, ribbons, and status.

Of course don’t forget about school work. Learn, learn, learn to get the highest score on the next test and you better keep it going so that you can get into a good college. This is what reality has become for a growing number of children.

The stress that our kids are under these days is immense compared with years past. I know that times have changed, I understand that. I am busy too.

I hear stories all of the time from parents who tell me that when they were little, they were told to go outside with their siblings and friends. No one was allowed to come back into the house unless it was dinner time or IMG_0711.JPGsomeone was bleeding…and even then it was iffy.

Even just a generation ago the emphasis on children’s daily activities was play, period! We dug holes, we took walks with our friends, we rode bikes, we built snow forts, and we all had a pair of roller skates. Everything that we could do outside, we did. We learned as we played and we played as we learned.

How About Kids from this Decade?

The numbers of children who are diagnosed with a mental health disorder in the US is staggering! It’s proven that kids who sit and play video games and watch TV for more than two hours per day (standards of the American Pediatric Association) are at higher risk for developing ADHD.

Kids who are overly sheltered by their parents in an effort to keep them safe from every possible thing in the world, are more likely than others to develop anxiety.

Faulty Thinking

Exploring one’s world and taking healthy risks is a critical part of growing up. We all need to experience things on our own instead of being taught to be fearful. The exception to this rule is of course blatant safety issues such as not going near a busy road or touching a hot stove.

The ideas that we, as adults, have created in our minds that are dangerous may not really be reality for our children. For example, one of my fears for my kids was riding the school bus. I was convinced that they would encounter bullies and be taught all sorts of heinous things on their way to and from school. But guess what? Years after my first son began riding the bus, we are all okay AND he doesn’t mind the ride. Wow was I wrong!

The bus ride actually created opportunities for us to talk and for him to grow in positive decision making and ways in which to show responsibility.  If I wasn’t careful, I could have easily taught him that the school bus is an evil place. Yet, he was able to experience riding a school bus on his own and now he has his own opinion grounded in HIS reality, not mine!

Further Concerns

How about obesity? This too is on the rise. In fact, it is projected that if we keep raising our kids with less and less activity and continue feeding them quick, convenient, and processed meals because we are all so busy, the number of obese and unhealthy children will continue rising at unprecedented numbers.

What are we doing to our kids? We mean well, We want the best for them, but we are missing some very crucial elements of what it means to raise a child.

ADHD, Anxiety, and obesity are among the most common childhood diagnoses. These along with others are sadly on the rise. Did we see these high number of diagnosed cases 50 years ago? No! How about 30 years ago, or even 10 years ago?  No we did not. It is my solid opinion that something needs to change for the benefit of our children, their future, and the future of humanity.

Is lack of play to blame for all of this? Is it lack of quality food choices? Is it lack of knowledge? Perhaps it is a little bit of all three.

Allowing kids more time to play will not cure the world’s childhood concerns, nor will better food choices. What these two things actually have the power to do is to improve the state of our children’s being. There isn’t one single fix to this growing problem, but there are small steps that we can all start taking together.

The Proof

Several studies have revealed that daily exercise and time to play outside naturally levels out the chemicals in our brains. For active kids, this is great news. Heck, it is great news for active adults too!

Anxiety levels, ADHD symptoms, and everyday stress have all been documented to decrease when one can sustain a heart rate of 170 beats per minute, for 20 minutes in at least 5 out of 7 days per week.

It is highly recommended that kids stay active for much longer than 20 minutes per day. However, the factor of change is seen when the criteria of 20 minutes spent at a heart rate of 170 beats per minute is met. Beyond this heart rate, let them ride their bikes, let them run, let them explore, and do whatever else they are interested in as long it is safe and involves movement!

Studies also prove that chemicals, antibiotics, hormones, and genetically modified ingredients are found in almost every part of our food supply. It is my strong opinion that all of these additives that are now found in the food that is ingested multiple times a day by our children is another factor contributing to the increase in behavior problems and mental health diagnoses.

Just think about it, look at back at our thoughts of 50, 30, and 10 years ago – back then there was not even close to the amount of harmful additives in our food supply!

In short, we grew up playing, enjoying hours of fresh air, exercising, exploring, and eating food that was much healthier for our growing bodies and brains. Overall, we had the good life. And that’s not to say that our kids don’t have it good. They do! In many ways they have it better than we did.

Our generation and the generations before our had their problems, of course.  But if we look at the outrageous numbers of American’s children being diagnosed with a mental illness we have to admit that something is amiss here.

Change the way we let our kids play and change the way they eat and I guarantee you that our children and our children’s children will be able to enjoy more of what it means to be a child.

Change Can Begin Now

So all that sounds wonderful, but what are the best ways to accomplish such a task? Here are some pointers to get you started:

  • Limit screen time to two hours per day. If your child is used to being in front of a screen for more than this amount of time, you will likely be met with resistance. Kids love screen time. However, you are the parent and your job is to do what is best for your child. To help in this area, build in opportunities to earn additional screen time by completing chores and following household rules. A plan that tracks a child’s earnings can be found here.
  • Get them moving! Once you limit screen time, what in the world will they do?  I’m sure you’ll hear that question. Send them out! If its cold, bundle them up. This is especially true for kids who are in their early teens and younger. These aged kids seem to enjoy outdoor activities the most. If you have older kids, they will likely be more interested in doing in-house activities such as reading, doing a craft, or hanging out with friends. Whatever the interests of your child, tap into these as you provide suggestions that are apart from screens.
    • *In my household, I do not count screen time against my kid’s total time if they are doing something educational. This could mean doing math facts, reading, research for a project, or any other activity considered to be educational on  screen.
  • Research and learn more about organic foods and non-GMO food choices. OIMG_0710.JPGnce you know which food choices are healthier for your family, your shopping choices will be easy. It will take a bit of work in the beginning to find out what to look for when reading labels; but once you do, you’ll settle in as these items will become part of your normal shopping list.
  • Limit the amount of fast food and restaurant visits to just once per week and have them brown-bag it for school lunch. Food served at fast food restaurants and schools is considered to be processed foods containing much more harsh ingredients than good. The same is true for many kid friendly restaurants. Stop filling your child’s growing bodies and brains with unhealthy food. Use your new found knowledge of organics and non-GMOs to make them eat-at-home meals.

So there you have it. Four solid ways to begin making healthier choices for your kids. Will these steps eliminate mental health diagnoses in our children throughout America? Sadly, “No”. However, I know for a fact that these things will help!

If we all start taking small steps now to make our own children more healthy, we will in turn be making our world a healthier place. It all starts with us, and yes we can make a difference!

Support healthy choices for your children and support those providers who are working hard to bring awareness to the public about safe eating choices. Support local farmers and feel proud that you are feeding your family well.

We would love nothing more than to read your comments about how play and healthy eating plays a role in your children’s lives. Please contribute to the Behavior Corner community below.

Click here if you are not one of our current members, and welcome!


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Barb, LMHC, CPC, Ed.M, CAS  



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