Archives for 2019

Screen Time: Strategies for Plugging into Healthy Technology

Is there such a thing as ‘good’ screen time?

We’ve all heard it – too much screen time can cause insomnia, social disconnection, even impact cognitive development.  As parents, we agonize over how much is too much. Should I be confiscating their phones and iPads? Limiting use of the wifi and TV?  Shutting down the video game console?

Actually, researchers say there are upsides to the technology era we live in.  

Says Dr. Katherine M. Keyes, assistant professor of epidemiology at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, “Video game playing is often a collaborative leisure time activity for school-aged children. These results indicate that children who frequently play video games may be socially cohesive with peers and integrated into the school community.  We caution against over interpretation, however, as setting limits on screen usage remains an important component of parental responsibility as an overall strategy for student success.” Dr. Keyes made her remarks following a study she conducted on the positive effects of video games on children.

Kara Loo, writing in the Huffington Post, notes seven different ways video games can help kids in school.  Among them, she cites development of critical thinking and reading skills. In her article she says, “Video games also hone spatial thinking, reasoning, memory, perception, and problem-solving — all which come in handy for a wide range of technical careers.”

So what is a parent to do?  

The very best time to start thinking about screen time is early – before the age of 5.  The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children under the age of 18 months not have any screen time.  For 18 – 24-month-olds, they advise only high-quality programming that you watch with your child. For two-to-five-year-olds (preschoolers), the AAP says you should limit screen time to an hour per day.  

As you decide what is appropriate for your family, you can begin to talk about the use of technology and set expectations.  Conversations started when your child is young helps establish a pattern of communication about technology early on, which can reduce the likelihood of challenges when they are teenagers.

It is also a good idea to take a look at your own relationship with technology.  Very young children absorb much of what they know by observing their environment.  What are your children seeing when they watch how you use technology? How much are you on your phone?  What are your children learning from observing you?  

I was in Seattle over the summer.  We were hurrying down the street, with three hungry children in tow, anxious to get them fed.  Walking along one block, I noticed another family working their way down the same street. Dad was out front, with their older daughter.  Mom followed with the younger child in a stroller. Dad was holding his daughter’s hand with one hand and his cell phone to his ear with the other.  

I watched them walk the entire length of the block, he deep in conversation, she beside him.  She glanced up at him every so often, but he never noticed. His eyes looked keenly ahead as he focused on the conversation he was having on the phone.  

It was only a moment in time.  Perhaps he’d told her before the phone call started that he’d be busy while they walked.  Maybe she was only checking to see if he was still busy. But I was struck by what he was missing as he pressed forward, unaware of the non-verbal communication from the child at his side.  

It’s easy to get caught up in the demands of our ever-present technology.  A quick check of incoming messages becomes a half-hour of email responses. Spending that free five minutes on social media becomes twenty or more.  

There is a lot of good in the technology we all have access to.  But we are also increasingly aware of the need for establishing boundaries around the time we spend with it.  As Geraldine Walsh exclaimed in an article in the Irish Times, “We need to disconnect and reassure children we value them above our devices.”  

Want to learn more?

For more information on the healthy use of technology, join us at the Old Mill Center on October 15th, 6:30 pm,  for a free parent workshop, “Strategies for Plugging Into Healthy Technology.”  Designed to help parents of young children (0-5) get off on the right foot, the workshop will be led by Richard Halpern, an educator with over 25 years of experience helping parents navigate the growing up years.

Workshop attendees will learn the initial steps to take to assure balance and control around the issue of screen time.  Halpern will help parents learn how to identify a good app or video and will provide resources you can take home and use immediately.

The workshop is free and open to the public. Free childcare will be provided.  Call 541-917-4884 to sign up and register for childcare.  

Ultimately, as parents, it is our goal to frame the conversation with our children so that as they grow they are educated and empowered to make healthy choices.  “Plugging into Healthy Technology” will add tools to your parenting tool kit that will help your family have a healthy and empowered relationship with technology.

Share

6 ways to Lower Back-to-School Anxiety

Back to school stress can begin even before the school year starts. What has become our summer routine will quickly be replaced with the demands of a new school year. This impending change can increase anxiety levels in children and parents alike.

Here are six quick tips for reducing the tension in your house as everyone gets used to the new ‘normal’ for this school year.

1. Get into a routine

During big transitions like the first weeks of school in a new class, use predictable routines for the beginning and end of each day to help lower stress. Routines are reassuring for children and adults alike. Knowing what needs to be done, and doing that in the same order each day, adds a rhythm to each morning and evening. We can do it without investing anxious thought and worry in the routine tasks of each day. Very young children gain confidence in themselves when they know they can predict what comes next.

2. Make time for downtime

Especially during the first two weeks of school, give everyone time to just do nothing. Consider saving the ‘back to school celebration dinner out’ for later in the month and let your overwhelmed students just veg out at home during these first few weeks of adjustment.

3. Stick to the sleep schedule

Help children get enough sleep by setting appropriate bedtimes. Begin the bedtime routine early enough that getting to bed isn’t rushed. Children who are well-rested will have an easier time coping with the stressors of their day.

4. Limit screen time and encourage physical exercise 

Exercise helps prepare the body for better sleep. Instead of starting a video, take a walk together as a family after dinner. Set a digital curfew each evening to help everyone move into a more restful and sleep-receptive state. The earlier the better, but experts recommend we step away from our devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime. A great alternative to winding down in front of a screen is a good old fashioned printed book, read by the light of a table lamp.

5. Lower your expectations

We all want to have everything ready for the big change of a new school year, but consider putting off some of the preparation. Yes, you will need a new supply of long pants and long sleeve shirts, but can it wait until early October? You want everyone to skip off to school gleefully each day, but some days they are more likely to shuffle – or stomp – out the door. Let it go. Give them a hug and a smile anyway, and maybe a little encouragement, to go forth and make it a great day.

6. Put a positive spin on it 

Help anxious children see the upside when they express their fear with comments like, “I don’t want to go back to school.” Remind them that they will see friends they haven’t seen all summer. Ask them what they are looking forward to the most. Help them see that starting something new can also be exciting. Just smiling — even if you don’t feel happy — releases endorphins that will make you feel better.

This time of year often means heightened anxiety at home. Look for ways to lower the stress of back-to-school at home, so your kids can take their best selves into their new classrooms. Less anxiety means they will be more open and receptive to the learning their teacher has planned for them. 

Take a deep breath. In a few short weeks, we can look back and congratulate ourselves on settling into our new school year routine.

Share

Sleep, Sleep Debt, and Mental Health

Lack of sleep, also known as sleep debt, affects both our physical and mental health. Studies show that sleep debt affects numerous parts of our body, including our brain. In our brain, lack of sleep actually causes brain activity to slow down.  

Sleep cycles at my house are dramatically different in the summer than during the school year. With a house full of tweens and teens, removing the need to get up in the morning has invited my teens and tweens to stay up long past their typical bedtime.  

They stay up until midnight, then sleep in the next day. Sometimes, I find myself insisting they get up as the clock chimes noon. Yesterday, we dragged the 14-year-old out of bed at 10:30am for a family trip to the blueberry patch. He was not pleased. He complained about feeling rushed out the door. He slumped into his seat in the car, intent on ignoring those around him, but the ride helped improve his mood. By the time we were all in the berry patch, he had waded through the worst of his sleep deprivation. 

We all know what not getting enough sleep does to us the next day. We are grouchy. Moving through the day feels like swimming against the current.  It’s hard to get things done. We are short with the kids, tend to eat even though we are not hungry, and have no motivation for exercise.

That is not a surprise to researchers who study what lack of sleep does to people. 

Describing one study, Yuval Nir, a sleep researcher at Tel Aviv University, said, “We were fascinated to observe how sleep deprivation dampened brain cell activity. Unlike the usual rapid reaction, the neurons responded slowly, fired more weakly and their transmissions dragged on longer than usual.”  

You are not imagining things – when you are tired, you really do think more slowly.

What’s more, not getting sufficient sleep for long periods of time also reduces mental and emotional resilience. Lack of sleep can lead to negative thinking and emotional vulnerability and can make problems with anger, depression, or anxiety worse.

A survey of sleep studies done by the Department of Research at the California Institute of Behavioral Neurosciences & Psychology notes that “sleep is an essential part of our lives. The typical person needs seven to eight hours of sleep each night to maintain peak mental and physical health.”

They continue by stating “less than seven to eight hours of sleep can be harmful to human health. Getting less than adequate sleep is known as sleep deprivation. When an individual has multiple consecutive days of sleep deprivation, they enter “sleep debt,” which is a cumulative effect of insufficient sleep for any period of time. The effect of sleep deprivation on mood has been well-documented. The changes in mood that have been linked to sleep deprivation include anxiety, depression, mood swings, etc.

Sleep deprivation appears to impact adults, adolescents, and children in similar ways. Sleep deprivation can exacerbate pre-existing mood disturbances, such as anger, depression, and anxiety, and can lead to confusion, fatigue, and lack of vigor. Even just one sleepless night correlates with these changes in function.”

How much sleep do you need?

It’s not always easy to get as much sleep as we should. Adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night.  Recommended nightly sleep is 10 hours for teens and between 10 and 13 hours per night for children over the age of 3. (Children under 3 need even more.) Missing even 15 minutes of sleep each night can accumulate over time and result in sleep debt which affects both mental and physical health.

So, how do you take corrective action if you or your children are suffering the effects of too little sleep? Sleep experts recommend:

  1. Rather than sleeping later, try going to bed earlier each night.  Going to bed at the same time each night, as well as following the same routine getting ready for sleep, can help with falling asleep.
  2. Optimize the sleeping environment by eliminating electronics (tv, ipads, phones, laptops) in the bedroom.
  3. Consider room darkening shades and motion sensing nightlights to minimize the amount of ambient light in the room overnight.
  4. Lower the temperature of your sleeping environment. Body temperature drops as we sleep, so the optimal temperature for the bedroom is between 65 and 68 degrees overnight.
  5. While naps can help reduce the total amount of sleep debt, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.  Adults should limit naps to a 20 minute catnap or a 60-90 minute power nap. Any more can create problems getting to sleep later in the day. 

Want to know more about the physiological effects of sleep debt?  Check out this article from LiveScience.com.

Share

Take a break – you’ll get more done!

Hold on, I’ll be right back….

I’m going to go take a quick break, ‘cause, you know, it’s just plain good for you. 

I love a ‘To Do’ list.  I will add things I have just finished to my list, just so I can cross them off. At home or at work, there’s not much better than the sense of accomplishment when things come off the ‘To Do’ list. I feel productive, happy to be getting things done, and making progress.

The problem is that when I am not working through a list of projects, I get anxious about ‘wasting time.’  When I take a break, I fret about all the things I could be finishing, if only I were working the list. It is a struggle to relax.  

But neuroscience tells us that breaks and rest are a big Something for our health and mental well-being – and for being more productive. Alex Pang, author of Rest: Why you get more done when you work less, says, “We need to rethink the relationship between work and rest, acknowledge their intimate connection, and rediscover the role that rest can play in helping us be creative and productive.”

His book describes the research that has been done on the relationship between rest,  productivity, and creativity. Much of this research examines how our conscious and subconscious work together during periods of effort and of rest.

Different kinds of rest open pathways in different parts of our brain.  Building these pathways between the subconscious and conscious thought strengthens our ability to solve problems and get things done.

In his book, Pang identifies four key concepts of productive rest:

  1. Rest and Work are partners, not adversaries
  2. Rest includes active behaviors, like hobbies and exercise and is not simply passive activities
  3. Rest is a skill that can be learned and improved
  4. Deliberate rest stimulates and sustains creativity and problem solving

Pang also describes three primary types of rest: 

  • Passive rest – lying on the couch, watching television, waiting in line
  • Physical activity – walking, enjoying a hobby, participating in a sport
  • Mental rest – napping, sleeping, meditating, day-dreaming

Rest benefits everyone — people in high pressure jobs, artists and writers who are paid to be creative, and parents, who, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, are spending an average of 7 hours every workday taking care of children.  Anyone who “works” at anything can benefit from incorporating deliberate periods of rest into their day. Pang says, “[Rest] allows them to recover the mental and physical energy that they expend in those intensive [work] periods, but is also allowing their creative minds, their creative subconscious, to take up these problems and work on them more effectively.”

Pang asserts that “if you recognize that work and rest are two sides of the same coin, that you can get more from rest by getting better at it and that by giving it a place in your life you’ll stand a better chance of living the life you want, you’ll be able to do your job, and your life’s work, better.”

So, how do we get the benefits that rest offers in lives that are overwhelmed with activity, with technology that keeps us tethered to our jobs 24/7, in a culture that values busyness and sees inactivity as laziness? 

Awareness

The first step is awareness.  We can start with recognizing the benefits of rest and trusting the promise that periods of rest can help us be more productive during our working hours.  Awareness helps counter the cultural negativity around resting.

Routine

Pang recommends that we organize our day so we have time for rest.  Create a routine that incorporates periods of effort and work, and periods of rest.  These rest periods can be passive (laying on the couch, reading a book) or active (taking a brisk walk, participating in a team sport, taking a yoga class).

Practice

And finally, practice.  Make sure there are periods of rest each and every day.  Some creative people work with a timer on their desk, setting the timer so that for 10 minutes of every hour they are up from their desk, away from the work.  They find that upon their return to the task, they are more productive than they would be had they slogged through the next hour without that period of time for their subconscious mind to mull over the task at hand.

Organize your day so you have time for both scheduled hours for focused intensive work and hours for rest – time for yourself for walks, naps, or hobbies which give your creative mind time to work.  

For rest to be most effective, says Pang, “You have to take it.”  

Most people are able to work at a high level of productivity for about 90 minutes to two hours at a time, and in fact for a total of 4-5 hours a day.  Says Pang, “If you can get a high level of work for that period, that’s actually a really good [productive] day.” 

So, about the pressure to keep working at that ‘To Do’ list?  Oh! Wait, I just had a great idea while I was taking a break! I’m going to add “take a break” to the To Do list.

Share

The Link Between Food and Mental Health

The choices we make about what we eat affects more than just our weight, heart, and  physical health. Studies of diet and exercise for mental health have shown a significant link between food and mental health.

What we eat can affect our mood, how we feel, and how well we cope with stress in life. Dr. Eva Selhub says, “Think about it. Your brain is always ‘on.’ It takes care of your thoughts and movements, your breathing and heartbeat, your senses — it works hard 24/7, even while you’re asleep.

“Think about it. Your brain is always ‘on.’ It takes care of your thoughts and movements, your breathing and heartbeat, your senses — it works hard 24/7, even while you’re asleep.

This means your brain requires a constant supply of fuel. That “fuel” comes from the foods you eat — and what’s in that fuel makes all the difference. 

Put simply, what you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood.”

For many years, I worked in an office, surrounded by others, all of us in cubicles. I had a cup of coffee at home, then another when I got to work.  I worked productively throughout the morning, which I attributed to being a “morning person.” I was always productive and full of energy at the start of the day.

After lunch, I resumed work, a little less energetically. By 3pm, I’d hit an energy low. Problem solving became more difficult. So I’d have a diet cola mid-afternoon. It gave me a boost for the last stretch of the workday.

I’d commute home, have dinner, and by 8pm, I’d hit another low. My brain was mush, and I was exhausted. Every day was the same – clear headed and mentally energetic in the morning, brain fog by 3pm, caffeine-assist mid-afternoon, and crash by 8pm.

But then, during the height of popularity for detox ‘cleansing,’ I did a 3 day juice ‘cleanse’ over a weekend. I spent the weekend with a classic caffeine withdrawal (excruciating) headache. But by Monday morning, I was on the other side and the headache was gone. I hated the idea of having endured that headache for nothing. So, I decided to stay off the caffeine.

The impact of that one small change in my diet was astonishing. Without the caffeine, my energy level for the entire day remained steady.  My brain was fully functioning all the way to bedtime. I wasn’t crashing mid-afternoon, so didn’t need the soda to make it to the end of the work day.  I got to the other side of the dinner hour and still had mental and physical energy. It was amazing to enjoy the evening, instead of watching the clock as I held up my weary head at least as long as the kids were still up.

I was amazed at how the caffeine I’d been drinking – just two cups of coffee in the morning and a soda in the afternoon – had impacted my mental and physical health for the entire day. I was happier and healthier without the caffeine.

What we eat really does affect how we feel and how well we cope. Licensed nurse Carolyn Denton, says, “The food we eat gives our bodies the ‘information’ and materials they need to function properly. If we don’t get the right information, our metabolic processes suffer and our health declines. If we get too much food, or food that gives our bodies the wrong instructions, we can become overweight, undernourished, and at risk for the development of diseases and conditions, such as arthritis, diabetes, and heart disease.

Functional Medicine practitioners examine the role of nutrition in chronic disease, they look at multiple systems, such as the digestive system, the immune system, and the detoxification system, because of the interconnections between those systems. For instance, because 80% of the immune system is contained in the gastrointestinal system, a person’s issues with immunity could be related to faulty digestion.”

Many studies have also looked at the impact of nutrition on young children.  A review of the research done in 2014 found that a poor diet is linked to poorer mental health in children and adolescents.   

They conclude that there is an important relationship between diet patterns or quality and mental health early in life. The evidence also indicates that what we – and our children – eat may play an important part in preventing or managing mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), and dementia.

The UK Mental Health Foundation says, “Just like the heart, stomach, and liver, the brain is an organ that requires different amounts of complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, amino acids, vitamins, minerals and water to remain healthy.”

Not surprisingly, good nutrition includes fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds, meat, fish and dairy.  These foods, known to benefit our heart and liver, also benefit our minds, memory, and emotions.  

And while a healthy diet helps everyone’s mental health and brain function, for infants and children under the age of 3, whose bodies and brains are growing more rapidly than they ever will again, good nutrition also feeds their ability to learn, setting them up for a lifetime of benefit.

Share

Family Fun: It’s Good for Everybody

Who doesn’t love to have fun? Summer is the perfect time to break out of the routine and have some family fun together. There are so many benefits — to both parents and children — when families have fun together.

Families playing together build stronger bonds between parents and children, strengthen communication skills, and pave the way for better behavior in their growing children. The simple fact: families having fun together contributes to healthy child development.

Stronger bonds 

Prior to the 20th century, family bonding occurred primarily through shared work and household chores. With industrialization came a shift in family roles and family dynamics. Urban and suburban families today are not working together all day on the family farm, but finding time to have fun together can provide families opportunities to develop strong emotional connections and deeper family relationships. 

We play a lot of board games at our house. As the children get older, we’ve moved on to strategy games that can take hours to complete. Those hours spent together around the game table provide opportunities for conversation. Often the conversation has nothing to do with the game in front of us. Especially for teens, the game table provides a low-stress, device-free environment where they are more likely to share their thoughts and feelings, about particular issues or just life in general.

Better communication

Engaging in activities as a family group helps children learn to communicate with people who have different styles, opinions, and ways of doing things. Young children observe and then model the behavior of the adults around them. Playing together each individual contributes to the conversation in their own unique way. These varied styles of communication allow young children to observe differences and help them develop robust communication skills.

Better behavior

More family-time together creates stronger emotional bonds as well. Relationship skills help children develop well and have a long lasting effect. Research has shown that teens who spend more time with their parents are less likely to skip school or get into trouble with the law (see Wiley Online).

Better health — and less stress

Spending time together having fun helps both the adults in the family and their children reduce the impact of stress on their health and well-being. Findings from a Canadian research study “underscore the importance of giving greater attention to the role of leisure as a means of coping with stress.”


Choosing energetic activities for family fun, like biking or soccer, will elevate heart rates and reduce cortisol levels. Cortisol is the body’s stress hormone, also known as it’s ‘alarm system.’ Turning off the alarm system with activities that get the body moving can help lower blood pressure. 

With so many good reasons. Let’s all take some time this summer to have some family fun together. It does not need to be elaborate or expensive. Here are some suggestions from 100 Ways to Have Fun with Your Kids for Free or Cheap:

  • Have a reading marathon.
  • Write stories together.
  • Play soccer.
  • Paint or draw together.
  • Create a fort in your living room out of blankets or cardboard boxes.
  • Go on a hike.
  • Have a sunset picnic at a park or beach.
  • Play board games.

You can read the full list here: 100 Ways to Have Fun with Your Kids for Free or Cheap

Share

Summer is a Great Time to Delegate

Do you have a teenager or two who find themselves at loose ends without the routine of the school day? Last summer, I found myself in just such a situation. The change in routine is a welcomed one, but for some children, the lack of structure can cause anxiety.

I had two problems as summer break started last year. First, I really wanted to see my kids help more around the house. And secondly (and maybe more importantly), I wanted them to get away from the screens.

But then I had an idea that turned out to be the perfect solution for our family.  

I’ve never been good a sustaining the expectation that kids will do chores. They help, but in random and infrequent ways. But early last summer, I hit upon a sustainable and simplified version of a ‘chore chart’ which focused only on dinner. It invited the entire family to take responsibility for getting dinner onto — and off — the table each evening.

This simple chart gave everyone specific responsibilities every day.  And a routine for the lazy, unscheduled days of summer.

To create our family “dinner delegation” chart, I began by making a list of the four main elements of dinner prep and cleanup. I intentionally selected just four jobs since there are five of us in our household. This let me rotate everyone through the tasks every week and also gave one person ‘the night off’ each day.

Our four jobs were: Set the Table, Cook Dinner, Clear the Table, and Do the Dishes.  The number of jobs can be expanded or contracted to fit the number of people in the family.  For example, “Put Away Leftovers” could be added after “Clear the Table” if an additional job is needed. For us, one person did all the dishes, but “Load the Dishwasher” could be separate from the hand washed dishes in “Do the Dishes.” And there’s nothing saying people can’t be assigned more than one job each day. The chart can easily be modified to fit your particular family configuration. With our family of five, these four worked for us.

On our chart, the first column contains the jobs that need to be done. Then come the days of the week. I listed just Monday through Saturday, giving everyone Sunday ‘off’.  Some Sundays we ate out, on others dinner was ‘Do it Yourself’, but mostly I just did it all on Sunday, with help from whomever was inclined to assist.

After rows and columns were done, I added names, starting with job one on Monday and ending with job four on Saturday.  The resulting assignments looked something like this:

I posted this chart on a kitchen cabinet, where everyone could see what their assignment was each day. Assigned responsibility was a radical departure from the way we’ve always done it at our house – where I cooked dinner and hollered for someone to set the table when it was time to eat.  The change was awesome.

Because it was written down and posted, everyone knew what to expect. So there was no grumbling about doing the assigned job. The kids thoroughly enjoyed choosing the meal they would prepare and then fixing it for the family. (Full transparency: I helped with the cooking most nights at the beginning, as this was our youngest’s first real experience with using an oven and stove.)

One of my children is an overachiever. When it was her turn to set the table, it was often done mid-afternoon!

But things didn’t always go smoothly.  There were days when someone was not home for dinner. On these days, there would be much negotiating, with deals made to swap jobs or find coverage. This gave the kids an opportunity to practice their negotiation and compromise skills. Another benefit!

Does delagation sound like something that might work at your house? Here are some tips if you decide to embark on this adventure:

  1. You’ve got to be ok with giving up control of the menu planning. Choosing what to fix gives the kids practice at planning and follow-through, and builds confidence and enthusiasm. Cooking what someone else has chosen does not create the same excitement and is likely to be met with grumbling.
  2. You know your children best – give them support where they need it, help them learn and gain skills in the kitchen through effort and practice, then back off when they are able to do it independently. Delegating doesn’t completely eliminate the need to be in the kitchen during dinner preparation. I found I was able to work my way out of the kitchen as the summer progress, but at the beginning I needed to be available to support and coach.
  3. Grocery shopping is another opportunity to engage children in the mechanics of preparing for meals. We would assemble the week’s menus together on Saturday morning, so I could grocery shop for the week. Bringing them to the grocery store to participate in the gathering of ingredients is another job that could be partially delegated.

What do you think? Is there space for such a system in your family’s routine this summer? Last year, our new summer dinner strategy worked so well we are excited to implement it again this summer. In fact, I’m thinking it may become standard operating procedure throughout the year!

Share

Get Out!

As the school year comes to an end, our thoughts turn to summer, vacation, and the great outdoors. We get excited to see the sun, shed the sweaters, and make plans for hiking, camping, boating, and exploring the Pacific Northwest. But, you know, being outdoors has benefits all year long. This summer, start a habit of being outside regularly, then stick with it throughout the year.

Studies have documented many benefits for children when they get outdoors. In Finland, where children spend 15 minutes outside after every 45 minutes of instruction, studies have shown that these frequent breaks can equal smarter kids. They return to the classroom more attentive and ready to resume their learning. Those 15 minutes outdoors refreshes their bodies and their brains.

Being outdoors in the natural sunlight helps align the body’s biological rhythms to natural cycles of light and dark — rhythms that help regulate sleep and manage stress levels and hormones. Sunlight stimulates the part of the brain that helps regulate our biological clock. And supplies us with vitamin D, which improves our brain’s ability to function efficiently.

Studies have linked time spent outdoors in nature to decreased ADHD in children and improved focus, concentration and productivity in adults. According to the National Institute of Health, being exposed to light at all times of the day and night modern contributes to late sleep schedules and may also disrupt sleep. Getting outside and reconnecting with natural rhythms of light and dark can help address this disconnect.

Simply put, spending time outdoors in nature and natural light improves wellness and just makes us feel better.  

Another mind/body connection to nature and being outdoors is found in environmental health research. Grounding, also known as ‘earthing’, “refers to the discovery of benefits — including better sleep and reduced pain — from walking barefoot outside or sitting, working, or sleeping indoors connected to conductive systems that transfer the Earth’s electrons from the ground into the body.” [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3265077/#]

In the article “Earthing: Health Implications of Reconnecting the Human Body to the Earth’s Surface Electrons”, the authors note, “emerging scientific research has revealed a surprisingly positive and overlooked environmental factor on health: direct physical contact with the vast supply of electrons on the surface of the Earth. Modern lifestyle separates humans from such contact. The research suggests that this disconnect may be a major contributor to physiological dysfunction and unwellness. Reconnection with the Earth’s electrons has been found to promote intriguing physiological changes and subjective reports of well-being.”

Whether a grassy lawn or the sandy beach, being barefoot and connecting your body to the earth has benefits.

So as you are planning your summer, make some time for being outdoors – preferably barefoot! Plan a picnic, shed the shoes, and enjoy a romp in the park after lunch.  Stretch yourself out in the grass and watch the clouds float by. Take off those shoes next time you are at the beach and soak up some healing electrons.

Here are a few of my favorite ‘get outside’ destinations in Benton County:

  1. Bald Hill bike & hike trail  – walk or bike for as long as the little legs will go and choose your level of difficulty.  Stick to a short paved stretch near the fairgrounds, or challenge yourselves to climb the unpaved, but well marked trails to the top of Bald Hill.
  1. Jackson Frazier wetland – a lovely boardwalk loop through protected wetlands.  The boardwalk is flat and the walk just two-thirds of a mile long, with opportunities to hear and see all sorts of wildlife.
  1. Fitton Green natural area – a bit of a drive out Oak Creek Drive, Fitton Green is a lovely grassy knoll with stunning views of the valley along its gently sloping loop trail.

Do you have a favorite nearby destination for getting out and back in touch with mother nature? Share it in the comments!

Want to learn more about the research being done on the body’s connection to nature?  See:

Share

The Importance of Play

If you’ve ever visited a Montessori classroom, you may have noticed something odd about the language that is used. Children are invited to choose their ‘work’ from the shelf. They are invited to find work to do with their friend. Why do they talk like that? For parents familiar with play-based preschool programs, this emphasis on “work” seems inappropriate to a preschool setting.

As adults, we often think of “work” as that which we have to do. If it’s “work” by definition, it is not “fun.” Merriam Webster defines work as “an activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result.” Play, on the other hand, is defined as “engaging in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.”

Dr. Maria Montessori, in her research of child development, famously stated, “Play is the work of the child.” Translation: when children play (engage in an activity for enjoyment) they are working (involved in mental or physical effort which achieves a purpose or result).

In other words, when they play, children are working on many things.  

Play helps them develop fine and gross motor skills, improve self-regulation, develop cognitive and intellectual abilities, learn social skills, and increase their ability to imagine and create.

There are so many benefits of play for the developing child. And yet, for a variety of reasons — full calendars, changes in family structure, and increased attention to enrichment activities and academics — children today have less time each day for recess at school and child-led play outside of school. The rise of electronic access to passive entertainment has also stolen time from healthy, active, creative play.

Free-play is different from an arranged play date, participation on a sports team, or adult-led group lessons in music, dance, or sports. While those things are all valuable, children also need unstructured time to engage with other children and their environment. Free-play invites them to imagine, create, negotiate, lead, and relinquish leadership.  

When children are offered time to play without structure imposed by an adult, it creates a space for the child and his/her peers to “be in charge.” There is no adult directing the activity, no adult making the decisions about what will be done next, no adult expectations imposed upon the child, and no assigned tasks. This invites the child to decide what will be done and how will it be done. The child has the freedom to imagine and then execute. To try, to fail, to succeed, to engage with other children in order to accomplish that which they have imagined.  

It encourages them to think and develop problem-solving skills. It gives them real-time feedback and consequences. They envision something that works and are rewarded with the satisfaction of a plan well executed. They attempt something that fails and are given the opportunity to build resilience, to develop evaluation and analysis skills, and then to try again.  

Children who have not had the opportunity to spend much time in unstructured, child-led play may need some practice before it feels natural and comfortable. If they are used to being told what to do and how to do it, calling upon their own creativity may not come easy for them. You are likely to hear, “I’m bored.”  But boredom is not a bad thing — being bored spurs our imagination and invites us to figure out what would give us satisfaction and joy, right here, right now.

At first, they may do nothing, but being still and doing nothing is not a bad thing. Laying in the grass doing nothing but watching the birds and the clouds float by is not a bad thing. Much has been written about the perils of day-dreaming, but research is now discovering the benefits of letting our minds wander. A recent study reported in the journal Learning and Individual Differences that a wandering mind improves creativity and metacognition (understanding of one’s own thoughts). Better understanding of yourself leads to improved self-regulation and enhanced well-being. (Daydreaming is good for adults, too!)

If your child’s day is full from beginning to end, try to find a way to carve out some “down time” when nothing is scheduled so they can just play, without adult direction or involvement. In so doing, they will have the opportunity to imagine, then plan, and then try.  

Where will their imagination and creativity take them? Lots of good places!

Want to learn more about the benefits of play for growing children, visit The Genius of Play.  
S

Features of the perfect free-play environment:

Feature: Benefit
Unstructured: Invites children to use their creativity and imagination – to invent the activity all on their own.
Child-led: Lets the child take responsibility for the activity, encourages imagination and creativity, lets them do only what they want to do.
Open-ended: Builds skills in creating processes, procedures, and social interactions when there is no adult decreed task to complete.
Loose Parts: Contains bits and pieces of things that can be used in many different ways to support their play.

Share

Helping Kids Cope

Disappointments and difficulties are a part of life. Economic circumstance, political upheaval, and family dynamics can create hardship and adverse life circumstances for children and their families. Sometimes children and families also experience truly traumatic events.

How do we – and our children – cope with both everyday difficulties and larger life trauma?  How can we help our children learn coping skills? Research examines resilience – the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties – in an effort to answer those questions.  

Over the last two decades numerous research studies have examined psychological resilience in children, looking to identify the special traits or skills that help children navigate difficult circumstances and overcome adversity.  Surprisingly, what they found is that it is not special traits or skills that help people who cope well with adversity. Instead, people who develop resilience call on the normal coping mechanisms available to us all.

What studies have found is that the key to helping kids learn how to cope turns out to be many of the same things that help kids grow up well: effective parenting, connections with competent and caring adults, self-regulation skills, a positive view of themselves, and the motivation to succeed.

Thus, everyone has the capacity for resilience.  Parents help support their children’s development – including developing their ability to cope – right from the beginning. Young children begin developing resilience as they learn from the responses of their caregivers.

Parents, with the support of other caring family members and community members, can help their children become more resilient through everyday interaction and role modeling. Parents who model resilience – demonstrating self-regulation in the face of disappointment or talking about how they “bounced back” from a setback – help children learn how to cope with disappointments in their own lives.  

Lizzy Francis offers a number of parenting strategies that support the development of resilience with these tips from Amy Morin, author of the book 10 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do:

“Supporting struggling children is important, but the best way parents can teach resilience is by modeling it. Acting cool-headed in the face of stress and acknowledging mistakes provides children with a rubric for failure. Failing, they learn, is not the end of the world. It’s just part of being alive.

Here are the specific suggestions that Morin gives parents looking to teach by doing….

  • Don’t Intervene All The Time
    “When your child is struggling — if, say, his blocks keep tipping over and he’s getting angry, don’t swoop in and do it for them,” says Morin. In other words, practice restraint. It’s easy to step in and help soothe your kid. But letting them struggle helps them learn that they can solve their own problems.
  • Own Up To Your Mistakes
    Parents, per Morin, should actively apologize to their children when they make mistakes, like if they snap at them, or are late to pick them up. “Pointing out what you did wrong — if you didn’t handle your anger very well, or said something that wasn’t very nice — explain what happened, without making an excuse. And then you explain how you will learn from the problem and fix it,” suggests Morin. This, she says, teaches kids that making a mistake is fine, as long as you apologize and learn from them.
  • Examine Their Feelings
    You want to acknowledge a child’s feelings and tell them that their feelings matter,” says Morin. “That makes a big difference in whether they perceive if their feelings are okay, that it’s okay to be scared and still do something anyway.” Letting your kid know that their feelings are legitimate — but that they don’t have to inform their behavior at all times, like, say, when a playground scuffle breaks out — is essential.
  • Audit Your Behavior
    Kids are always watching. Per Morin, it’s essential for parents to think about how they act in moments of daily stress and try to do better. “When you’re dealing with an annoying situation, like the long line at the grocery store, and you’re tired, and you’re hungry, how do you handle it? Are you complaining? Are you staring at your phone? Your kids are watching how you cope with your emotions,” says Morin.

In other words: by being a resilient adult, you teach your kids how to react to moments of stress.”

Parents can also help build resilience by taking care of themselves.  Self-care makes you better equipped to parent and better able to meet everyday challenges.

And good parenting has protective power for children in difficult circumstances.  As does strong, supportive connections with other adults – teachers, mentors, neighbors, and family friends.  For children and teens, relationships with other adults help foster a positive view of themselves and encourages motivation to succeed.

A resilient child has:

  • The capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out.
  • A positive view of themself and confidence in their strengths and abilities.
  • Skills in communication and problem solving.
  • The capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses.

(https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience)

Luckily these are all skills that can be developed at any stage of life.  As parents, we can help our children learn these skills and behaviors. As community members, neighbors, scout leaders, and sports coaches, we can mentor and support the children in our community as they develop their own resilience.

For more tips on helping your children develop the ability to cope with adversity, join us at the 6th annual PSN Speaker event on Monday, May 20th.  Dr. Ann Masten will be presenting “Ordinary Magic”, a look at building resilience in children.

The event will be held at the Linn Benton Community College, Tripp Theatre, LBCC Albany Campus, 6500 Pacific Blvd. SW, Albany.  Doors open at 6:30. Free childcare is provided by reservation – call 541-917-4884 to reserve your spot.

Share