The Power of Play It Is Vitally Important to the Physical and Mental Health of Children

Children need playtime, and summer means lots of opportunities to play for kids who are out of school with more time on their hands.

But playtime shouldn’t be relegated to sitting on the couch in front of the television and just playing video games all day. Summer is a time when parents and caregivers should be showing kids the door and encouraging them to engage in outdoor physical activity as a way to maintain a healthy weight in a society where obesity has become an epidemic. At the same time, parents should be encouraging safe play, when injury and death to children increases during the summer months.

Now that school is out for the summer, it’s important that parents find ways to keep their kids moving at home, while having fun at the same time. According to the National Institutes of Health, kids need at least one hour of physical activity every day to help them maintain a healthy weight and to build and keep healthy bones, muscles, and joints.

Exercise is anything that keeps a child moving. Have soccer balls available outside for kids to kick around on their own or play dodgeball with a friend. Hula hoops are also a good source of play and exercise. Jump ropes have long been a popular form of play, as well as good cardiovascular exercise. Even buying sidewalk chalk will not only help to exercise your child’s creativity, but his or her body as well. In addition to creating art, kids can use the chalk to draw games that will keep them moving, such as hopscotch and five-square. Also, introducing your youngster to the wonders of gardening can keep them active while teaching them about eating healthy.

For rainy days, if your child is addicted to video games, consider purchasing Wii Fit or Kinect ’exergames.’ However, parents should limit the time their child spends in front of the computer, television, and playing video games to two hours or less a day.

It’s also important that parents serve as role models when it comes to staying fit and healthy. Make family time for walking, biking, or bowling together, or even accompanying children to the playground.

However, summertime is also trauma time when it comes to healthy play and the dangers associated with swimming, spending time at the playground, bicycling, participating in sports, as well as a variety of other fun activities that could place them at risk for serious harm. Injuries are the number-one cause of death among children, and one child dies from an injury every hour.

According to figures from Safe Kids USA, during the summer trauma season, drowning deaths increase by 89{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}, bike deaths increase by 45{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}, fall deaths increase by 21{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}, motor-vehicle deaths increase by 20{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}, and pedestrian deaths increase by 16{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}. When it comes to childhood injuries such as these, trauma experts agree that the best medicine is to prevent them in the first place by playing in safe areas, away from the streets and vehicles, and following other safety rules. It’s also a proven fact that prevention works.

With drowning the biggest summer worry, children should never be left alone in or near the pool or spa for even a few short moments. According to guidelines released by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), children age 4 and older should be taught how to swim, and parents should know how to swim, too, in case they need to rescue their child. Parents should also learn CPR in case of an emergency. Also, kids should not swim in unfamiliar lakes or ponds or in the Connecticut River, where drowning accidents often occur each year from swimmers being caught in strong currents. Strapping on a lifejacket is also key to staying safe around the swimming pool and while boating on area waterways.

Of note, the Massachusetts Legislature is currently considering a bill called Christian’s Law, which would require all children attending summer camp in the state to take a swimming test, and for camps to provide life jackets at no cost to those who need them.

More children are also riding their bicycles during the warmer weather, some on busy streets, and helmets — required by law in Massachusetts for all children 16 years of age and younger — have been proven to reduce the risk of head injury by 85{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}. But having a law is no guarantee that a child will always strap on his or her helmet, and parents must play a role in making sure their children develop the helmet habit.

Because most cycling deaths involve collisions with motor vehicles, Safe Kids of Western Mass., based at Baystate Children’s Hospital, suggests that children be at least 10 years old and ’traffic wise’ before being allowed to ride on the road. Helmets should also be worn when using inline skates, skateboards, or scooters.

More teens are asking to borrow the car in the summer months, whether it’s to go to the movies, take a day trip to the beach, or just to hang out with friends. Parents need to stress to their children the importance of driving responsibly and to always buckle up, as well as making sure their friends driving with them are safely buckled up, too.

According to the AAP, drivers who are age 16 are more than 20 times more likely to have a crash than other motorists, while 17-year-olds are more than six times as likely. The reason? Young drivers are more easily distracted while texting, talking on their cell phone, or eating while driving. Also, the more kids in the car, the more easily distracted a young driver can become.

For younger children who are walking around more in their neighborhood, parents need to make sure they know how to cross the street properly, such as looking left, right, and left again before crossing; never running out into the road from between parked cars; using sidewalks or paths when available; and walking facing traffic in the absence of any sidewalks. And it’s a two-way street — adult drivers must be on the lookout for children playing and walking outside.

More kids are also being left home alone during the summer months, and should be taught about hazards around the home, such as to never leave an oven or stove unattended if they are cooking for themselves, and what to do in case of an emergency. It’s also a good idea to know who your child’s friends are, as well as their parents.

Other summer safety tips include:

  • Never place a child on your lap while operating a riding lawnmower. Kids are unpredictable and can suddenly escape from your grip and fall off the lawnmower, putting them at risk of being run over by the blades.
  • In addition to kids, dogs are outside more in the summer months. Parents should teach their children how to protect themselves from dog bites, such as to never approach a dog they don’t know or run past them in fear, because the dog is more than likely to give chase.
  • Finally, make sure the playground your child visits is safe and has a protective surface if they should fall down, and that the equipment is properly maintained and safe.

Dr. Chrystal Wittcopp is director of the Pediatric Weight Management Program

at Baystate Children’s Hospital. Ida Konderwicz, RN is pediatric trauma coordinator at Baystate Children’s Hospital. For more information on Baystate Children’s Hospital, visit baystatehealth.org/bch, and for additional safety information from Safe Kids of Western Mass., headquartered at Baystate Children’s Hospital, visitsafekidswmass.blogspot.com.

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