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Mom tips: The case for play

Have your kids been outside yet today? No? Send 'em out!

Yes, their school work is important. But did you know that physical activity has been linked to increased academic performance? A recently published study in Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine reviewed 14 studies of physical activity and academic achievement. And guess what? Time spent in physical activity was positively associated with school performance.

Active outside play is particularly beneficial to children. Research from the American Medical Association suggests that unstructured, free play outside enhances kids' creativity, focus and problem-solving -- all skills that are easily translatable to the academic sphere.

So schedule some free, outside time each day. (Yes, even in winter.) Some families head out first thing in the morning to get their bodies and brains going before settling in for the day. Other families prefer a break mid-morning. Running around outside can help release pent-up energy and provide a break between academic subjects. My kids do SO much better when they get outside for a couple of hours each day.

If your kids aren't used to heading out independently, it may take them awhile to feel comfortable playing outside. Here are some tips I've used to get the kids out the door:

  1. Head out with them. If your kids are reluctant to go outside, challenge them to a game of Tag. Or suggest a walk around the block. Few kids can resist the chance to play with Mom or Dad outside.
  2. Provide raw materials. Simple, low-cost materials can greatly enhance your child's outside experience. Sleds for wintertime fun, while a few kitchen measuring cups and some water can keep even your older kids busy in a sandbox in the summer. Scrap wood is great too. Most kids love to build forts and hideouts.
  3. Incorporate nature. If you can, designate part of your yard a "nature preserve." Add a bird or squirrel feeder. Plant flowers and plants to attract birds and butterflies to the yard. Consider planting a garden in spring. If you don't have yard, visit state and city parks as often as you can.
  4. Invite friends over. Few kids can resist the appeal of a friend. Invite another online student over for some fun, or arrange to meet some homeschool/online schooling families at a local park. If the kids can't think of anything to play, introduce some favorites from your childhood, such as Red Rover and Kick the Can.
  5. Encourage sports. Your kids don't have to be pro-caliber athletes to have fun shooting hoops or playing catch. Stock up on some basic sports supplies at a local second hand shop and have fun playing together.
  6. Take inside activities outside. Children, especially younger children, love anything that goes against the norm. So take breakfast outside and linger for awhile. Read under a tree. Do math with sidewalk chalk on the driveway -- and don't yell when math turns into a game of Hopscotch. Let the kids bring some "inside toys" -- toys cars, blocks, dolls -- outside to spark some imaginative play and re-ignite their interest in familiar toys.

Even if your child would rather read a book than run a lap, getting outside is a great way to stimulate the mind. It may take a few tries to figure out what works and what doesn't, but once you and your kids get a rhythm, you should find that a little play time can work wonders.

Jennifer L.W. Fink is a freelance writer and mother of four boys. Her homeschooling journey began over seven years ago and has included just about every possible permutation of homeschooling: full-time homeschool, combination homeschool/public school, and full-time institutional school. She blogs about boys and education at Blogging 'Bout Boys.

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