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Parenting Articles
Get Active
Exercise Outdoors for Better Health
(published in Parents' Press in 2011)
By Heather Larson


Pleasant Hill mom Fran Kelly had trouble finding ways to engage her 13-year-old son in physical activity until she hit on the idea of having him help with the yard work. Now he also assists with his younger sister’s soccer practice. The entire family keeps moving by taking evening walks around the neighborhood and swimming frequently.

Because her three children stay active, Kelly has discovered they sleep better at night, and when they sleep better, they perform better at school.

That’s generally true for all kids. Physically active children are healthier, says Terri Drain, a P.E. teacher at Vintage Hills Elementary School in Pleasanton. They have improved cardio-respiratory endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance and more flexibility.

“Children develop movement skills, self-esteem, confidence and social skills when they move more, and that helps them better navigate their world and become physically active adults,” says Drain, who was named the 2008 California Physical Education Teacher of the Year. “Physically active children also make better learners, because the brain needs the body to be physically active in order to thrive.”

Yet children today get very little exercise, a problem Drain blames on technology and a national obsession with high test scores.

P.E. and recess are being eliminated because they aren’t perceived as important, says Drain, a pity because children need at least 60 minutes of vigorous physical activity every day and they aren’t getting it.

Moving more, especially outside, positively influences your health and well-being, says Nancy Kaiser, interpretive services manager for the East Bay Regional Park District. “Getting outside provides more intricate layers of sensory involvement than screen time does,” says Kaiser.

To enrich your kids’ outdoor experience, teach your children to walk in and really observe their outside world. Help them look at the surrounding plants and animals; have them listen to the sounds of nature; encourage them to inhale the scents and touch the textures. Studying plants, critters and birds in kids’ own backyard or neighborhood, Kaiser says, improves kids’ cognitive abilities, and even better, it’s free. Sound a little too boring for your technology-savvy kids? Let them use apps on a smart phone to identify the plants, insects and birds, which, in the East Bay, can be done anytime.

“Winter is a magical time to go outdoors,” says Kaiser. “Just dress appropriately for the weather.”

EBRP (www.ebparks.org) offers varied venues and activities year round to help East Bay families get outside. Check out

  • Wednesday Walks — Any age can participate in these hikes that explore different unique habitats of the East Bay.
  • Ardenwood Historic Farm — Every weekend is filled with activities for the entire family at this working farm.
  • Biking — With 1,100 miles of park land for bikers, there’s everything from paved flat paths to remote back country trails.
  • Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve — This is an ideal location for hiking, picnicking and nature study.
  • Drain suggests doing what you did when you were a kid: Play in a creek, climb trees, build forts or play hide and seek, street hockey, tag or kick the can.

“Children have amazing imaginations and the capacity to entertain themselves,” says Drain. “All they need is someone to play with and a safe place to play.”

Because today’s youth don’t explore outdoor activities, lack physical exercise and have increased health risks, the California Roundtable on Recreation, Parks and Tourism was prompted to adopt the California Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights. This initiative recommends a list of experiences every child living in California would benefit from experiencing before entering high school, and they range from swimming and fishing to camping and exploring.

Kaiser says her organization has adopted this philosophy and partnered with the California Roundtable to provide these experiences. The California Roundtable is an independent nonprofit organization that promotes public and private outdoor recreational efforts in California.

“Children should have the right to ride a bike and swim,” says Kaiser. “And parents should spend outdoor time with their children because it’s a wonderful commitment and it means so much to kids.”

Above all, Drain says, remember to be a good role model, because children are more likely to be active if their parents are active. Keep it fun, too, so kids will want to repeat the activity, and try to weave in some movement outside into every day.

Kaiser says you don’t have to travel or pay money to do most of the activities mentioned. You can find them in your backyard or local park, and they will serve as gateways to new adventures down the road. Maybe you’ll go camping or picnicking and in the process feed your family’s sense of exploration and wonder.


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