Striking summer balance: Maintaining healthy schedule for kids
MADISON, Wis. — As an elementary school gym teacher, Moira Farrell quickly realized something troubling about a number of her students.
“They don’t know how to play,” Farrell said.
She started assigning the kids activities where she would only give them one ball or no equipment at all and tell them to make up a game to fill the time.
“Unstructured is where they get to be creative and build those neuropathways in their brain, and science says they need to do it,” Farrell said.
It’s a difficult balance Dr. Bhawani Ballamudi, a child psychiatrist with SSM Health, sees families struggle with often.
“I think there is definitely some research that shows that having down time is actually really important for kids,” Ballamudi said. “Kids need to get bored, you know. And only when they get bored is when you see this creativity flowing.You see that their executive function is actually better.”
At the same time, Ballamudi said not scheduling enough for your child can have them defaulting to screen time. She said that can be just as bad for a kid’s brain. Not only does it trigger the same part of the brain activated by addiction, but excessive time in front of a screen can cause other significant mental health concerns over time.
“They’re used to this instant gratification and kind of constantly engaged on the screen, so the rest of the world becomes boring and very monotonous that you know they lose interest, and it leads to focus and concentration problems,” Ballamudi said. “We also see some difficulties with mood regulation and behavior regulation. These kids are more likely to get more irritated, more frustrated, more agitated.”
Ballamudi recognizes the challenge parents have, specifically during the summer, to find the right pace for their child. She said the summer can be a great opportunity for children to explore hobbies and relationships in a way they can’t during the structured school day. However, she urges parents to have some level of supervision over those activities to make sure they’re happening in a safe way.
The most important thing, Ballamudi said, is communicating with your child and understanding what they need and enjoy. She said each child is different when it comes to the level of activity they need to thrive.
“If your child is enjoying these activities, feeling good about them, coming back happy from these activities, you’re doing right, you know. But if your kid is tired and can’t even focus on the basic things and the activities that they’re doing are actually kind of starting to erode their self-confidence or erode their self-esteem, it’s time to take a step back and ask your child, how’s it going?” Ballamudi said. “You want to ask your child, is this something that you’re enjoying? Is this something that you are kind of benefiting from, or is this something that we need to reassess?”
Over scheduling can lead to a child developing more anxiety and depression, Ballamudi said. She said there could be a sense of children not accomplishing what they’re “supposed to be” accomplishing because they’re not doing anything to their fullest potential. Ballamudi said those factors can lead to mental health struggles as adults as well.
“The most important thing that you need to be is be connected with your child,” Ballamudi said.
Inspired by her own experience at a yoga training, Farrell started Camp Begin this summer. Kids from 4 to 14 years old will spend a week in nature, giving them the space to tap into something new and acquire some sense of mindfulness. In a sense, it’s providing structured space for unstructured play.
“I think everything that’s just happening in the world right now is stressful and it’s negative, and this is a positive way to prevent a lot of mental health problems and I just think parents need this for their kids,” Farrell said.
Sarah Delany is working as a Camp Begin counselor this summer, but her typical position is an occupational therapist. She works with teenagers and children who struggle with a wide range of mental health conditions and said simple mindfulness techniques and interacting with nature can do wonders for the kids she helps.
“I think a lot of children who are given that (ADHD diagnosis) are also possibly struggling with the school day model of sitting in a desk all day,” Delany said. “Often you get those kids outside especially if they’re allowed to play freely and explore their curiosity, they excel and are able to engage really well with others.”
Delany has also seen the research supporting free play for child development and said the speed of our society can make it tough for parents and their kids to find their way at their own pace.
“I think trusting that it’s OK that a kid is bored and allowing that to happen, and then giving them the tools to manage the emotions that come up when they’re bored is why this camp is just so powerful,” Delany said.
Camp Begin still has spots open for its first summer sessions. Right now, there are more than 100 kids registered over the four weeks.
“The community says they want it,” Farrell said.
Along with open communication with your children, Ballamudi has a number of suggestions to help you maintain a balance for your family this summer:
Be patient. Ballamudi reminds parents that they should be open to conversations with their children, but also expect them to open up on their own time. Establishing and keeping a relationship with your child will help them feel comfortable coming to you when they want to talk about something.
Gage emotions and express them. Ballamudi says the more a child talks about their feelings and recognizes why they’re coming up, the more they’re able to gage when they’re normal and when they’re abnormal.
Get active! “There’s definitely kind of I think some evidence for mild depression, mild anxiety, having a regular physical activity is very very beneficial because I think it kind of helps with the hormones and destressing anything else about these symptoms in general as well,” Ballamudi said.
Encourage healthy relationships. This could be with friends or family members. Whatever it is, Ballamudi says positive relationships boost confidence and self-esteem.
Volunteering. Ballamudi says giving back and expressing gratitude helps kids feel happy and content. She adds kids who volunteer are less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety because they’re not constantly in a negative state of mind.
Keep a sleep schedule. Ballamudi stresses sleep is when hormones do their work and the body repairs itself. She adds a number of children who are diagnosed with ADHD are simply not sleeping enough. “The brain is just not ready to function in that particular environment of learning,” Ballamudi said. She says maintaining a bedtime routine that kids can look forward to and restricting screen time at least an hour before sleep help keep that consistent.
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