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Posted on 08-21-2017

June 2, 2016

School has ended, the weather is warming up and you’re about to enter two and a half months of time off from the usual routine. Here’s some ideas to help to make this the best summer ever!

1. Give Your Children the Gift of “Unscheduled Time”

Photo by Brandon Morgan

Independent play (the opportunity to decide what to play and how to do it) develops a critical cognitive skill known as executive function, which give us the ability to self-regulate. Executive function helps you to manage time, pay attention, switch focus, plan, organize, prioritize, remember details, exert impulse control, and match your behavior to your situation. Not surprisingly, executive function is a more accurate predictor of a child’s academic success than IQ.

The most important way children develop executive function is through make-believe play. In 2001, researchers replicated a 1940s study on executive function. Psychologist Elena Bodrova explained that “today’s 5-year-olds were acting at the level of 3-year-olds 60 years ago, and today’s 7-year-olds were barely approaching the level of a 5-year-old 60 years ago.” That was 15 years ago, before most children had continual access to notebooks and cell phones!

Remember when you were a kid at home and you had to come up with something to do? That kind of “boredom within borders” led us to think and creative. Without someone (organized activities) or something (electronic devices) to turn to for entertainment, we discovered that we had an imagination and used it to create games, costumes, characters, artwork, music, stories, and worlds of our own. We learned how to be responsible for ourselves and not to wait for someone or something else to make us happy. We developed our executive function (and had a great time doing it!

2. Include Outside Play

There are so many benefits for children in spending time outdoors, fresh air, sunshine, and dirt being three. During my childhood I regularly came home covered in dirt and happiness.

In Last Child in the Woods, author Richard Louv explains the importance of unstructured, outdoor play, linking a lack of this activity to rises in obesity, attention disorders and depression. Louv concludes that playing in the natural world increases physical competency, common sense, and “contributes to a sense of wonder and awe.”

It can also help children focus. A 2008 study found that memory performance and attention spans improved by 20 percent after subjects spent an hour out in nature.

Getting into the dirt is also important to our children's proper development. Dr. Graham Rook at the University College London found that the lack of dirt in our children’s life may be contributing to the high incidence of autoimmune disease as the organisms that our children encounter outdoors teaches the immune system how to properly evaluate potential threats.

Recent studies have shown that dirt is good for our skin,may help prevent asthma and respiratory diseases and can accelerate learning and brighten moods

So kids who play outdoors in the dirt are healthier, happier, and perform better academically. The dirt washes off, but the benefits remain.

3. Spend Family Time Together

The most important gift you can give your children this summer is the gift of your time. Don’t save it all for vacation, spend time together every day! Work together and play together. Teach your children to cook, build things, clean things, and feel the sense of accomplishment that comes with a job well done.

Make time to play together. There are so many things you can do—play board games, card games, arts and crafts, even an occasional video game. Enjoy the outdoors—sports, water games (pool games, water guns, water balloons, slip and slide, or just running through the sprinkler together), take a nature walk, go swimming, fishing, make bubbles, play hide and seek, tag, or something you or your children make up. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do it together!

Have family “phone free time. Some families choose to put all phones and electronics in a basket during meal time or family games, so that nothing will interrupt their time together. But don’t expect the kids to follow that rule if you’re not willing to do so as well!

4. Keep Them Well Hydrated

When weather is hot it is especially important to make sure that your kids stay hydrated. Even mild dehydration can result in headaches, irritability, and a reduced ability to perform physically and mentally. A recent study from Harvard found that over half of American children are dehydrated. They found that boys were particularly prone to not consuming enough liquids.

By the time your children feel thirsty, their body Is already in the early stages of dehydration, So teach them not to ignore their thirst. Have appropriate drinks handy, not sweet drinks like soda, energy drinks, or sports drinks, which are all extremely high in sugar content.

The best choice for your children is plain water or water with some fruit added for natural sweetness. Adding a bit of salt to the water will help with electrolytes. Coconut water with sodium is also excellent, if you children like the flavor. Whole fruit helps replace electrolytes, but give them drinks made of fruit blenderized with the skin, not commercial fruit juices.

5. Grow a Family Garden

Gardening is a lost skill in much of our society. If you don’t know how to garden yourself, learn with your children! A family garden gives us an opportunity to work side by side with our children. It helps our children learn the value of hard work as they enjoy the literal fruits of their labors!

There’s a great excitement to watching your own plants grow and produce something that you can eat. It helps encourage a healthier diet, as children love to eat their harvest! Picking your own organic vegetables and putting them right on your table brings the ultimate nutrition to your family!

In addition to your family garden, give each of your children their own space to plant whatever they like. Let them have the responsibility for taking care of their plot, applying what you are teaching them in the family garden. A garden plot can them develop responsibility and give them a sense of achievement as their plants grow and produce.

6. Perform Acts of Service

Few things in life can rival the joy we feel when we act to make someone else happy. Summer is a great opportunity to help your children start on a lifelong path of giving. Not only will it make them happier, but service is proven to reduce selfishness, anxiety, and depression.

The possibilities are endless. We all have friends and neighbors who could use a lift. Make treats or cards and deliver them, wash someone’s car or windows for them, help mow or trim their lawn, weed their flowerbed or garden. Make gifts of produce from your home garden. Contact a local assisted living or nursing home. Many love to have families visit to play games or, if your children are musically inclined, to perform for the residents. One friend took her daughter and their dog to visit at a local assisted living center each week.

Local charities always need volunteers. Newborns in Need (Springifeld) welcomes volunteers as young as 8 years old as long as they are accompanied by an adult. Least of These (Nixa) and Ozarks Food Harvest (Springfield) accept volunteers age 12 and up and may have opportunities for younger children in family volunteering.

For other opportunities in your area, check Volunteermatch.org or JustServe.org.

7. Read Physical Books

Reading develops our brains in the way nothing else does. And reading from physical books has an effect on our brains that we miss when reading from electronic devices.

There is a definite connection between what we sense physically and what we process mentally. Your children can earmark a favorite page, write notes in the margin, underline a sentence, or highlight a paragraph, increasing their sensory experience and thus improving retention. They can feel a sense of accomplishment by noting how much they’ve read. There is a link between seeing the words on a page and turning the pages that helps with memory and cognition. Reading a print book in a slow, focused, undistracted way for at least 30 to 45 minutes each day helps to reduce stress, improve concentration, and increase empathy.

Lisa Guernsey found that children sitting with a parent listening to an e-reader understand significantly less than those hearing a parent read. When parents read books aloud, they tended to ask questions, such as “how do you feel about what she did” or “what do you think will happen next”, or relate images or events to the child’s life. However, when parents sat with a child with an electronic device, the parents tended to focus on the device rather than the story. This is important, as the conversational interaction between the parent and child regarding the story actually helps a child to develop reading and comprehension skills.

Take some time to read from physical books yourself during the summer. This helps set an example for your children.

Print books also provide a great way for children to wind down and prepare for sleep. Blue screens of our electronics keep our brains awake. Reading from a print book about an hour before bedtime can help our children’s brains shift gears and get ready for sleep.

8. Teach Your Children to Write and Read Cursive

With most schools no longer teaching children to write cursive, they can’t read it either. That means that they can’t read family or historical documents, or even birthday cards from Grandma and Grandpa. Take some time this summer to teach your children cursive writing.

Cursive writing has benefits that we cannot gain through printing or typing. Occupational therapist Suzanne Baruch Asherson found that “Cursive handwriting stimulates brain synapses and synchronicity between the left and right hemispheres, something absent from printing and typing.” Studies show that students that wrote essays by hand “wrote more words, faster, and expressed more ideas…versus with a keyboard”.

Researchers Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer tell us that using laptops for note taking in classes may be “impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing.” Students using laptops typed information verbatim rather than processing the information to write it in their own words. They found that “students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand.”

How well children write is also important. Utilizing MRIs, researchers showed that the brains of those with good handwriting activated more in “regions associated with cognition, language, executive functions...and also in working memory, motor planning and timing.”

Want to accomplish cursive more quickly? Try Cursive Logic by Linda Shrewsberry, which groups cursive letters into four shape categories to make learning cursive quicker and easier.

You Can Make the Difference

There are only so many summers that we get to spend with our children but the time we spend with them and the things we teach them will stay with them and impact the rest of their lives.

I hope a few of these ideas will help you and your family as you prepare to have the best summer ever!

Dr. Greenwood 

Dr. Hunter Greenwood DC ND is a chiropractor and naturopathic physician, certified in acupuncture and acupressure, with over 30 years experience.

Dr. Greenwood practices at Chiropractor Plus, 1361 West Mount Vernon Street in Nixa, Missouri.

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