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Friday, February 21, 2020

Onlooker Play: What It Is and Why It Matters!

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Onlooker Play: What it Is and Why it Matters!

Onlooker play can look a little concerning at first. I'm sure we've all looked at children playing and seen one child standing on the sidelines, just watching. You might wonder why that child doesn't join in: Are they shy? Are the other kids being mean to them? But sometimes, there's nothing at all to worry about.

Onlooker play is a completely normal type of play, one of several stages that young children move through. It's a particularly important stage because it's the first time children express interest in the play of other children. During this stage, children watch other children at play. If it's your child doing the watching, your first instinct will probably be to encourage them to engage with other kids. After all, you want them to be able to have fun on the playground equipment like the other kids. But fight the urge to intervene. The truth is that this stage is part of how kids learn to play with others, and if you interfere with onlooker play, you'll be interrupting your child's healthy development. This is part of how they learn about social interactions, how other children manipulate playthings, and what playing with other children looks like.


The Six Stages of Play

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Mildred Parten, a researcher at the University of Minnesota's Institute of Child Development, identified six stages of play that children experience developmentally. Remember that each child develops at their own speed: Two children of the same age might be at different stages, so don't fret if your neighbor's kid is engaging in associative play while yours is still in the onlooker stage. The six stages are:

  1. Unoccupied Play: Babies and young children are reasonably still in their movements, and their play looks scattered. They mostly focus on exploring materials available to them and practice manipulating the materials.
  2. Solitary Play: Children play alone. This sometimes worries parents, but it shouldn't! Children at this stage are mastering new motor and cognitive skills and exploring the idea of play.
  3. Onlooker Play: Children watch other children playing without joining in. This gives children a chance to learn about peer interactions and how other children manipulate play materials.
  4. Parallel Play: Children play adjacent to each other but don't actually interact with each other. They may occasionally look at the other child or children and copy what they are doing.
  5. Associative Play: This is the stage of play when children start expressing interest in interacting with each other. They put into action what they observed during onlooker and parallel play and start practicing their social skills.
  6. Cooperative Play: At this stage, children make group goals for play, establish rules, and work through conflicts.

Support Your Child in Onlooker Play

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How can you support your young children during all stages of play development, especially during onlooker play? It's simple. First, provide ample opportunities for play: Take them to the playground, bring them on a nature walk, set out some art supplies for them to use, or just shoo them out into the backyard for a while. Then, try not to interfere: Let them find their own way to play. Children in control of their own play learn to follow their own interests and make appropriate choices. If they want you to help them climb the jungle gym or play pretend with them, they'll ask.

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Thursday, February 20, 2020

10 Heart-Healthy Habits for the Whole Family

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10 Heart-Healthy Habits for the Whole Family

February is American Heart Month, which has got me thinking about how I can help my family be more heart-healthy. If you want your children to grow up to make heart-healthy lifestyle choices, the most effective way is to start while they are young and model the behaviors you want them to have. No child is going to want carrot sticks if you're eating fries, and no child is going to prioritize exercise if their parents rarely leave the sofa. So in honor of American Heart Month, guide your family into adopting these heart-healthy habits, which can improve your cardiac health and set your children up to continue a healthy lifestyle when they are adults.


1. Get Moving

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Incorporate regular movement into your family's routine. Take nightly walks, climb playground equipment together, go for family bike rides, or just grab a ball and invent a family game. Even grabbing a leash and taking the dog out for a quick stroll is a great way to start incorporating movement into everyone's daily schedule. Anything that encourages your whole family to get moving together is a good option.


2. Simplify Your Family's Schedule

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When my family's schedule is hectic, I know I start to make less healthy choices. Hitting up the drive-through for dinner, skipping a nightly walk so I can collapse on the sofa, and handing the kids devices instead of interacting with them are all easy go-tos when time is limited. Instead of using these coping mechanisms, work to simplify your schedule as much as possible. Limiting after-school sports and activities to one per kid is an easy to way to help free up your evenings for dinners together and a little after-dinner exercise.


3. Limit Screen Time

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Research shows that children with large amounts of screen time are heavier and less happy than their peers with limited screen time. Sitting in front of a screen also increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. Limit use of phones, tablets, computers, and TV to two hours a day or less.


4. Schedule Checkups

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Regular checkups are essential for everyone's health. Let your children see you schedule and attend your checkups, and make sure they're getting routine physicals as well. Children who play sports will also need a sports physical before the start of the season. I'm sure you've read the horror stories of seemingly healthy young athletes who experience sudden cardiac death; it's rare in healthy teens, but regular physicals may help identify any potential issues before they cause your kids harm.


5. Go to the Grocery Store Together

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We've all been tempted to get groceries alone, knowing that we'll be in and out of the store faster without the kids in tow. But regular family trips to the grocery store model how to make healthy food choices. Your children will see which parts of the grocery store to focus on and which to skip. They'll also get to see you reading labels and making decisions accordingly. Talk through your decision-making with your kids, and let them make some age-appropriate choices while you're there.


6. Keep Your Kitchen Healthy

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While you're at the grocery store, pick up plenty of healthy snacks. Keeping your kitchen stocked with kid-friendly, healthy options like string cheese, hummus, fruit, yogurt, and sliced vegetables can help ensure that your kids reach for healthy snacks and carry this eating habit into adulthood.


7. If Everyone Eats, Everyone Cooks

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Some parents are blessed with children who despise sugary treats, love veggies, and would never dream of burying everything they eat in ketchup. My kids aren't that perfect, and I bet yours aren't, either! But one way to get everyone on board with healthier eating habits is to let everyone take part in the process. Let the kids help you pick out recipes and plan meals, create the grocery list, and (most importantly) cook the food. Kids are more likely to eat food they've helped cook!


8. Monitor Salt Intake

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Keep an eye on your kids' (and your) salt intake. Try using more dried spices instead of salt when you're cooking. And check the labels of all prepared food, because some unexpected family staples can be high in sodium.


9. Give Up Sugary Drinks

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The culprit here isn't just soda: You'll need to cut back on juice and energy drinks, too, because they're all full of sugar. Breaking an ingrained soda habit can be hard even for an adult, so it's important not to let this bad habit take root in your child. Learning to reach for water is a vital part of a healthy lifestyle.


10. Be Realistic

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I'd love to be the mom who meal-preps green smoothies every week, always has a healthy snack in her bag, and never thrusts a device into her child's hand to get a moment of peace. Unfortunately, I'll never be perfect. Nobody's perfect, and that's OK. Making small changes over time can still make a massive difference in your child's health and your own. Strive for attainable goals, and forgive yourself when you occasionally give in to your bad instincts.

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Friday, February 14, 2020

8 Simple Resolutions for a Parent to Support Play

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8 Simple Resolutions for a Parent to Support Play

We all know how important it is to spend time with our kids, but did you know that parent-child play is a vital part of a child's development? Research shows that children who have parents who play with them have a better vocabulary, do better in school, and have better self-esteem. Of course, independent play is also important: Unstructured play allows children to gain independence, flex their imagination, and work on their problem-solving skills. It also helps kids manage their stress and build their resilience and grit. Whether they're playing with you or on their own, it's important that parents support and encourage playtime. Here are eight resolutions you can make to help your kids get all of the benefits that play provides.


Encourage Children to Play Independently

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Free play has been decreasing since the 1950s, largely due to fears about leaving children unsupervised. But independent play doesn't have to be totally on their own: Keep an eye on them, but let them be in charge and try to solve their own problems. Stand back, avoid making suggestions about how they should play, and praise what they're doing, whether it's making a tall tower out of blocks or trying out the tallest slide at the playground.


Allow Children to Take Risks During Playtime

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Scientists once deprived young rats of risky play during a sensitive time in their development. The result was adult rates that were scared of new environments and displayed inappropriate aggression. Children of all species will sometimes want to try types of play that involve great heights, high speeds, dangerous tools, elements like fire or water, roughhousing, or hiding. All of these things can be scary for parents, but setting up a controlled environment where children can experience risk while playing is important to their development.


Spend More Time Outside With Children

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Playing outside isn't just good for your kids: It's good for you, too. Try to work in some family play time by tweaking your existing schedule. For example, sometimes, when I'm out running errands with the girls, we'll stop at the playground to blow off some steam before we head to the next stop on our to-do list. Try to get out in your own yard or the neighborhood park at least a few days a week.


Advocate for Recess at School

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Only eight states require that students be given a daily recess period, and school districts across the country have been cutting recess in recent years to carve out more instructional time. Not giving children the chance to run around, be outside, socialize with their friends, and play is detrimental to their development. What's a parent to do if their children's school isn't offering recess? Advocate for it. The National PTA advocates for recess and has resources available. Speak with the principal, and then go to your school's PTA to form a plan. You might need to escalate your request to the school board or involve the media.


Play More Yourself

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Instead of micromanaging the kids' play when you go outside with them, engage in your own favorite activities! Did you love riding your bike as a kid? Get it out of the garage and go for a ride around the neighborhood. Enjoy swinging? Show the kids how your proper pumping technique really lets you fly! The kids will see an adult happily engaged in play, and that affirms that their own play is important and valuable. It's also great for you!


Make Sure the Family Schedule Allows for Unstructured Play

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We all have busy schedules, and that goes for both you and your kids. That means that finding the time for free play to just spontaneously happen can be difficult. That's why it's important to make sure there's enough room in your schedule for play. Scale back on your after-work and after-school activities; limit each kid to one sport or after-school activity per season. After all, if each kid has organized activities from the time school lets out until dinnertime, when are they supposed to play?


Provide the Necessary Materials for Playtime

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So many children's toys are meant to only be played with in one particular way. Try to shift your toy-buying to things that allow for open-ended, creative play. A box of dress-up clothes, puppets, small versions of adult tools (a small broom, a small rake, etc.), buckets, balls, and the like will give your kids the necessary physical objects for highly creative play.


Invite Other Children Over

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Children love playing with other children, so make sure they have other kids to play with! A simple way to make this happen is to hang out with your kids on the school playground after classes let out. You can also meet other kids to play with at local parks. As kids grow older, they'll naturally want to start hanging out more with their favorite friends, so make a point to invite them over for play dates. It doesn't have to be anything fancy: Just offer a few snacks and let the kids handle the rest, with minimal adult interference.

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Thursday, February 13, 2020

9 Ways That Play Can Help Ease the Winter Blues!

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9 Ways That Play Can Help Ease the Winter Blues!

There's an old Mother Goose rhyme that goes, "It's raining, it's pouring, the old man is snoring." At my house in the winter, it can be more like, "It's raining, or it's snowing, and the girls are climbing the walls." The rhyme and rhythm are off a bit, but the feeling is real! Kids cooped up inside because of bad winter weather can quickly turn into squabbling, bored, unhappy children. But one of the many great things about playing is that you can do it just about anywhere, and another great thing is that playing can help alleviate the winter blues in your kids. You might even find that playing with the kids helps you feel better, too. There are nine different ways that play can help you to fight that cooped-up feeling this winter.


Release Dopamine and Norepinephrine

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Often, play involves movement, and the great thing about moving around is that it releases dopamine and norepinephrine. Dopamine is a chemical messenger that relays messages between nerve cells, and it also plays a role in how we experience pleasure. It helps us focus, think, plan, and find things interesting, too, so upping the amount of dopamine in your kids' systems is an excellent way to stave off the winter blues. Norepinephrine helps people focus, retain memories, and regulate their emotions. Issues with norepinephrine levels can contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety. Fifteen minutes of activity a day can help control these vital neurotransmitters.


Correct Circadian Rhythms

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If you've ever noticed that your kids' sleep routines get thrown off in the winter, causing them to be tired and whiny in the morning, have trouble sleeping through the night, or refuse their regular naps, one possible culprit is the lack of sunshine. It's harder for kids to get enough sunlight in the winter, when there are fewer hours of sunlight overall and bad weather that keeps them indoors, and this can mess up their internal clocks. The solution is to get more sunshine into their lives. Open the curtains and blinds in the morning so they get sunlight as soon as possible. If at all possible, get them to play outside in the sunshine for at least 15 minutes within two hours of waking up. And take any chance to get them outside, even if it's just for a few minutes at a time. The exposure to daylight will help get their circadian rhythms back on track.


Laugh More

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When children play, they often laugh, too, and laughter is a necessary component for good mental health. Laughter makes you breathe deeply, releases endorphins, calms down your stress response, and lowers your blood pressure. There are even long-term benefits of laughing: People who laugh have less pain, overall better moods, and even better immune systems than those who don't. So let the silly games begin and let the laughter fly.


Get Vitamin D

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Vitamin D helps protect us from diabetes, heart disease, and bone issues, including osteoporosis. It's a nutrient that works with calcium to build and maintain healthy bones. Our bodies produce vitamin D, but they need sunlight to do it. Being outside riding their bikes, participating in a sport, or just walking lets kids get the sunlight they need to produce vitamin D and stay healthy.


Build Confidence

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Well-designed playground equipment allows children to use different parts of their bodies to try new challenges and experience new risks. But if you watch children on the playground, you'll see that often, if they're interested in trying something, they'll watch other children do it first. Then, they'll try the activity themselves. They might fail, but most kids will naturally try again and again until they master the skill. Learning from their mistakes and conquering fears helps children build their confidence.


Release Energy

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Kids have a lot of energy, but kids who are trapped inside without a healthy outlet can quickly use that energy to make themselves and everyone around them miserable. Play will allow them to get that energy out without getting into trouble. If the weather's not too bad, send them outside to run around and work off that energy; if it's dangerously cold, rainy, or icy, try some indoor exercise instead.


Release Emotions

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Little kids can have intense emotions, and play is an essential component in learning how to release those emotions and regulate their emotional lives. Researchers agree that children use unstructured play to figure out how to express feelings and learn to deal with things that scare them. Letting the kids turn a play structure into a pirate ship or a big cardboard box into a rocket allows them to work through their feelings in a totally healthy way.


Build Social Skills

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When we're feeling grumpy and out of sorts, sometimes, it can help to go out and have fun with your friends. Spending time with friends is good for you, and it's good for your kids, too. Playing with friends also provides chances for your kids to make new friends, and it lets them practice getting along with children in the group they don't like. Playgrounds typically develop social networks where children learn to build relationships and navigate issues with their peers.


Develop Cognitive Abilities

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Children's brain development depends on play: Researchers agree that free play actually impacts how a child's brain wires itself. Experts from Jean Piaget to Fred Rogers believed that play was crucial for children's development. Letting children play allows them to work on developing language skills, problem-solving, focus, and reasoning skills. It also allows children to flex their creative abilities. Staying cognitively engaged also helps battle depression and can help your little ones conquer their winter blues.

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Monday, February 10, 2020

It's Walk Your Dog Month! Here Are 10 Benefits to Walking a Dog

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Ten Benefits to Walking a Dog

It's a simple fact that dogs need walks. Most people think this is because no one wants their dog to have bathroom accidents inside their home, and that's true. But dogs need to walk outside for longer than the average bathroom break. Just like with humans, walks have substantial physical, mental, and social benefits for dogs. That's one of the excuses my daughters use whenever they ask if they can go to a neighbor's house and offer to walk their dog, and I'm happy to let them, knowing that both they and the dog will reap a variety of benefits from the experience.


Health Benefits for Humans

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Medical study after medical study has shown that walking improves your overall health. It leads to a longer life span and more functional years. Luckily, walking also has one of the lowest injury rates of all aerobic exercise. Studies have shown that people who live in walkable neighborhoods have lower rates of cardiovascular disease, ad walking helps improve mental function, too. So lace up your sneakers and grab a leash!


Social Benefits for Humans

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Want to meet new people? Walking your dog might be more effective than joining a local meet-up group or signing up for a dating app. One study showed that a person walking a dog had three times the number of social interaction instigated by another person than did a person walking alone: People who like dogs are likely to approach you if you're out walking yours, meaning that you're more likely to meet people while you're out with Fido than alone.


Community Benefits

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University researchers in Australia, the U.K., and the United States conducted a telephone survey in four large cities to study how pets impact how people interact in their communities. They found that owning a pet means you are more likely to get to know your neighbors. This makes sense when you think about the amount of time you spend either walking your dog or letting them run around at the dog park. While your dog is making new friends, you might make some, too. Walking regularly through your community also gives you more exposure to your neighbors and the daily rhythms of your neighborhood.


Your Dog Will Be Happier

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You could just let your dog run around in your backyard, but that's much less fun for your dog. The different daily experiences regular dog-walking provides are excellent for your dog's mental health. Exploring new routes, seeing unique wildlife, encountering other people walking their dogs, seeing kids at the bus stop, and other new adventures provide needed mental stimulation to keep your dog alert and interested in life.


Your Dog Will Be Healthier

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Regular walks provide many of the same health benefits for your dog as they do for you! How much walking your dog needs to reap the health benefits depends on their breed. Most dogs need a walk at least once a day, although some dogs may need more. The kind of dog you have and its level of fitness will also help determine how long and how vigorous your walk should be to give them the correct amount of exercise.


You and Your Dog Will Have Healthier Joints

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Walking is good for all dogs, even dogs battling arthritis; older dogs can enjoy gentle walks on the grass. Regular walking while your dog is younger will help prevent joint issues later in life, and walking is just as good for your joints as theirs. Get outside and you'll decrease the chances that both you and your dog will struggle with immobility as you age.


You and Your Dog Will Be Less Likely to Be Obese

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Both dogs and people can struggle with obesity, but regular walks can help you and your dog burn calories and fight weight gain. A university study from England published in 2017 confirmed that people who walk daily have lower BMIs than people who walk less. People who consistently walked more than 15,000 steps a day were more likely to be at a healthy weight.


Your Dog Will Be Less Stressed

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Dogs can get stressed out when they spend too much time alone or don't have appropriate ways to get out their extra energy. Walks address both of these issues. Being out and about will let your dog see and interact with other humans and other dogs being walked as well as with you. Regular walks also enable dogs to work off their energy healthily.


Your Dog Will Stay Out of Trouble

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Ever known a dog that ate a sofa or dug up a freshly planted garden? That's because bored dogs quickly become destructive dogs. Dogs need stimulation and regular exercise to prevent boredom and prevent them from thinking up their own ways to amuse themselves. Tired dogs who receive focused attention from their favorite person (you!) and the mental stimulation walks provide are far less likely to destroy your living room.


You and Your Dog Will Bond

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The best way to bond with your canine companion is to spend quality time together. At home, it's easy to get distracted by chores, your phone, or one of the hundred other demands on your time. However, getting outside together and going on adventures will lead to many shared experiences that will help deepen your relationship. Your dog will soon learn the routine of going for a walk, and that, too, will make your relationship seem more solid to your pup.

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

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