With summer in full swing, many working parents are worried about how their kids and teens will fill idle time.
While day camp provides weekday structure and discipline, programs are often geared to younger children. Residential and specialty camps for older kids can be pricey and don't generally run the entire summer. Even a 16-year-old who wants a summer job may struggle with interminable days because of a teen unemployment rate of 24.6 percent. (That can add up to a lot of time on Facebook, playing video games, and watching television.)
It is a struggle for working parents to provide structure for unsupervised kids, says Dale Greifenstein, a physical education teacher at Riverdale Elementary School in Orlando, Fla. Studies show younger children gain weight in the summer, possibly because of too much unstructured time that leads to constant eating and zoning out in front of the screen.
"Parents say, 'I don't want them to sit, watch TV, and play video games all day,'" he says. "'I want them to be active, be outside and doing something. But then you have the whole 'it's not the way it used to be when we grew up. We were outside riding bikes or doing whatever.' Parents don't feel safe doing that anymore."
But kids don't have to pack on the pounds this summer. Here are ways to keep their bodies—and your mind—sound when they're at home running loose:
Limit screen time. "If you can help kids cut down on screen time, they tend to be more active overall," says Melinda Johnson, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Research suggests that children who watch more than four hours of TV per day are more likely to be overweight. "Mindless eating happens when kids munch in front of the TV or while playing video games."
When parents aren't home to unplug the router, they can impress upon kids that loafing around the house all day and playing video games is not a healthy lifestyle, Greifenstein says. Johnson suggests challenging kids to limit screen time to a certain amount—say two to four hours—each day. Parents may want to reduce screen time gradually. Limiting screen time helps kids figure out how to set priorities—watching a television show over using Facebook—and come up with things to do when the screen is off, she says.
Clean out the fridge. If you don't buy it, they won't eat it, says Lance Breger, a personal trainer and president of Infinity Wellness Foundation, a non-profit that works to reduce childhood obesity. Make sure when you are shopping you are selecting food you want your family to eat, he says. That means junk food should be kept to a minimum and the pantry and fridge should be stocked with fresh produce. Consider putting a fruit bowl on the table so that healthy options are visible and easily accessible. Help kids understand that we only need to eat when our body gives us hunger signals, Johnson says. Work with them to come up with things to do to deal with boredom rather than eat.
Talk to kids about being healthy. Educate kids on the importance of sleep, diet, and exercise, says David Swanson, psychologist and author of Help—My Kid is Driving Me Crazy: The 17 Ways Kids Manipulate Their Parents, and What You Can Do About It. He suggests scheduling an appointment with your child's pediatrician as part of the educational process. "In addition to being the expert on these things, your child is more likely going to listen to this message if it comes from anyone else but you," he says. "As a parent, I can identify with the frustration this can cause." Johnson says to give kids a reason to be healthy, such as excelling in sports, getting stronger, or growing taller. Most kids don't want to be sloths, she says. "Once kids make the connection between eating, activity, and a healthy body, they tend to be more receptive to our suggestions."
Challenge kids to be active. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that children and adolescents get at least an hour of physical activity each day. But given the choice, many children will choose TV over a bike ride. Swanson suggests signing kids up for a sport. Sports leagues build confidence, teach teamwork, improve social skills, and lower the risk of substance abuse, he says. Challenge kids to get active by walking a certain number of steps each day or improving their time on a run, says Breger. Reward them for their accomplishment, such as a trip to a local water park, a sleepover, or tickets to a professional sporting event.