Your family looks forward to it all year. Summer means freedom from homework, PTA meetings, and the rush to catch the bus. In fact, bedtimes, meal planning, and TV rules sometimes take a vacation, too. But this carefree season isn’t always good for kids’ health.
Even though a break from the grind can be relaxing, some parts of a routine are important for kids to stick with all year round, like the right amount of sleep and time to exercise every day. Too much of a break can lead to unhealthy changes. In fact, a 2016 study found that children tend to gain weight faster during the summer. And they’re more likely to become overweight or obese when they’re out of school.
So even when you’re taking a break this summer, the choices your family makes are still important. Here are five ways to keep it healthy.
Focus on Food
You can still pack a lunch for your kids, even when they’re not headed to school. It works great if they’re spending the day at camp. But they can also take it along on a hike or to the pool or park, instead of grabbing fast food or raiding the vending machines. Fill that brown bag with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and protein, and skip sweetened drinks.
At home, swap out the junk food in your pantry and fridge (soda, cookies, chips, fatty frozen foods) for healthier stuff. When your kids want to raid the kitchen during the day, they’ll have better foods to choose from.
Take advantage of your kids’ extra downtime to get them involved with their food, too. Plant a garden together, or visit a farmers market to pick from all the in-season produce. Let them choose tomatoes, melons, or peppers, and then make dinner together. Research has shown that kids who learn how to grow and cook their own food eat more fruits and vegetables.
Find a New Routine
The school year comes with plenty of structure, and all that scheduling can help encourage healthy habits. Put a little rhythm into lazy summer days with activities that will keep them active. You can sign your child up for day camp, swim lessons, playgroups, story time, or other activities. Check your local parks district and libraries for free or low-cost options. Or make your own plan for regular activities to cut down on boredom. A daily schedule could mean less screen time and less snacking (and maybe even less whining).
Be Serious About Bedtime
Without the early school-day alarm looming, getting kids to bed on time can seem less important. But a sleep routine still matters. Kids who sleep less have less energy to do the things that keep them healthy, like exercising. A tired brain is also more likely to make unhealthy choices, like zoning out on the couch with a bag of chips all day.
So limit those up-all-night sleepovers and be firm about a set bedtime. To make it easier:
- Keep a regular dinnertime.
- Make sure your child gets fresh air and exercise during the day.
- Turn off screens an hour before bed.
Stick to Screen Time Limits
To your kids, marathon sessions of TV or video games may seem to be a great way to pass a summer day. But extra time in front a screen replaces other activities that are better for them, like playing outside or getting a good night’s sleep. It can also lead to unhealthy weight gain -- the more TV kids watch, the more likely they are to gain extra pounds.
Keep screen time limits at your house the way you would during the school year. (Don’t have rules around screens? Summertime could be a good chance to test some out.) Outline times when devices aren’t allowed (like dinner) and create media-free zones in the house (bedrooms are a good bet). The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids ages 2 to 5 spend no more than 1 hour per day with high-quality TV or apps, and that older kids have consistent limits on how long they use TV, smartphones, or computers.
Plus, there are a lot of other fun ways to spend a summer day that don’t involve a screen! Help your kids come up with a list of activities they can try during the day. You’ll have a ready-made solution the next time you hear “I’m bored.”
Get Outside and Get Active
There’s no better time to show kids that moving is fun. Don’t focus on calorie burning. Instead, help them try something new or find activities they like. If sports are their thing, you can sign them up for a camp or a league. Or help them organize a regular game of baseball or kickball with other kids nearby. Or teach them how to fly a kite, paddle a canoe, or do a cannonball into the pool.
And make your family time count. Set a time every day when you all take a walk, ride bikes, play tag in the backyard, jump rope, play soccer, dance, or swim. It all adds to the 60 minutes of activity kids need every day -- no matter what season it is.