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Fun Outdoor Activities That Strengthen Kids’ Motor Skills

Almost all kids love to play outdoors. And the fun sports, play equipment and activities that may be explored outdoors also provide wonderful opportunities for children to strengthen motor skills. As the temperatures rise to more comfortable levels, encourage kids to head outdoors for playtime instead of staring at the screens and playing with tech devices indoors.

According to the American Heart Association, all children need at least 60 minutes of “moderate to vigorous intensity aerobic activity every day.” Many activities on local playgrounds help kids reach this vital heart-healthy goal, and these activities also do double-duty by improving gross or fine motor skills. So what’s the difference between fine and gross motor skills? The editorial team offers this easy primer to take the mystique out of motor skills:fine motor skills are small movements — such as picking up small objects and holding a spoon — that use the small muscles of the fingers, toes, wrists, lips, and tongue. Gross motor skills are the bigger movements — such as rolling over and sitting — that use the large muscles in the arms, legs, torso, and feet.”

According to, most kids master many fine motor skills by age five. Gross motor skills often are fairly developed by age six, but every child is different. Some kids naturally need more help in fine and/or gross motor skills. To help your little one master their muscles, engage them in these fun activities:


Parents don’t need a big field to get kids to play sports. Yes, the extra space helps. However, kids also can play a few games in their own backyard. Soccer is probably the easiest to play in the backyard. Just set up a few goals and have kids play mini games. Playing soccer helps kids learn to dribble the ball with their feet and improves gross motor skills. Running also gets the heart pumping! Families that have a basketball hoop in the driveway (or back patio) should encourage kids to practice dribbling and shooting baskets. Join in the fun and challenge kids one-on-one…or kids versus parent(s).

Playground Play

Your local park offers some of the best activities to strengthen motor skills. Local playgrounds are home to the equipment kids love, but those swings, slides and monkey bars also hide benefits within their fun! When kids crawl through tunnels connecting areas of the playground, the movement helps strengthen core muscles.

A simple swing is incredibly beneficial for babies and toddlers. Jill Mays, with The Motor Story, writes about the many benefits of swinging; hand muscles are strengthened by holding the ropes, and swings teach babies and toddlers how to focus during motion.

Even climbing the stairs to get to the slide helps kids improve gross motor, although most kids won’t master climbing until around two years of age.

Jumping Rope or Hula Hooping

Credit: omgimages

Teach kids how to jump rope and help them practice balance and coordination; this is a skill that also helps the heart…jumping rope is great cardio! Kids also can improve muscle coordination and balance by hula hooping. Keeping the hoop in motion takes practice and skill!

Fine Motor Skills and Fun for Rainy Days

Even if you can’t make it outside, kids can work on fine motor skills indoors. Need a few fun suggestions? Try cotton ball hockey. Set up goals on either end of a long table or on hard floors. Have kids use straws to try to blow cotton balls into the goals. Whoever gets all their cotton balls into the goal first wins! Holding the straws helps fingers practice the pincher grasp, and blowing helps strengthen “oral motor” abilities.

For kids who need a little sweet reward, Tools to Grow OT recommends having kids practice tiny motor movements by picking up small candies or pieces of trail mix with tweezers and placing them in a cup or jar. You can also use chocolate chips! This is a great game to use if kids receive candy for a holiday or special occasion and parents are left with open bags of candy that need to be contained…enlist kids to help cleanup and work fine motor skills at the same time!

Kids of all ages can boost fine and gross motor skills through everyday fun activities. Gross motor skills help kids run, jump and play at recess and physical education classes, and those tiny hands must master fine motor skills to cut, trace and grasp a pencil. Work with little ones to practice the skills they need to flourish in the classroom, on the playground…and in life!

How to Support Your Child’s Development Through Boredom

We have heard the stories in the news all the time—some say kids are “overscheduled” and need more time to play. On the other side, parents of the “tiger mom” variety tend to want their children constantly in activities and lessons to encourage their growth and development.

overscheduled or boredomUntil recently, the one voice you hadn’t heard on this topic was the one of science. Child development researchers are now trying to delve into this topic and understand the relationship between structured activities and children’s development.

In one of the first studies of this kind, researchers at The University of Colorado (CU) looked at the connection between how kids spend their time (structured vs. unstructured activities) and the development of executive function.

As you may know, executive function is one of the key regulatory skills that develops during childhood and is crucial to children’s success and well-being later in life. Executive function includes things like planning ahead, goal-oriented behavior, suppression of unwanted thoughts or behaviors, and delaying gratification. These skills have been shown to predict children’s academic and social outcomes years down the road. Based on this, you can see why researchers (and parents) are interested in understanding anything related to how executive function develops.

In the recent CU study, scientists asked 6-year-olds to record their daily activities for a week. They then categorized these activities as “structured” or “unstructured” according to a classification system previously developed by economists.

For example, activities such as sports lessons, religious activities, and chores were classified as “structured activities.” In contrast, activities such as free play (alone or with others), sightseeing, or media use were considered “less structured.” Routine activities such as going to school, sleeping, or eating were not classified in either category.

The researchers then analyzed the relationship between children’s time activities and their level of executive function. The results showed that there was, indeed, a correlation between these factors. The more time children spent in structured activities, the lower their scores on the assessment of executive function. In contrast, the more time children spent in less structured activities, the higher their assessment of executive function.

First of all, it’s important to note that this is just one study in what I hope will be a whole line of research in this area. In social science, you cannot base recommendations on one study.

Secondly, this study was small (70 children) and was only correlational, meaning we do not know if structured vs. unstructured activities cause a change in executive function or if there is something else going on here. What this study does show is that there is some relationship between these factors that deserves further study.

Boredom and child developmentWhat does this really mean? How could unstructured activities help in the development of executive function? Although researchers do not know for sure, it seems like this may be related to the research on boredom. More and more studies are showing how “boredom” or what adults would simply call “downtime” is related to a variety of positive mental states.

For example, boredom is likely associated with people being more creative. Boredom also allows for the development of new interests, self-reflection and goal-setting.

Additionally, some would argue that a lack of downtime or time for boredom allows kids to become so accustomed to a fast-paced lifestyle that anything less-than-exciting seems uninteresting. One philosopher put it this way,

“A life too full of excitement is an exhausting life, in which continually stronger stimuli are needed to give the thrill that has come to be thought an essential part of pleasure.”

All of this is definitely food for thought in terms of parenting. While we do not know for sure how these factors impact each other, it looks like there is some relationship between level of structured activities and the development of executive function. This is something to consider as you plan activities for your child.

The next time your child says, “I’m bored” consider looking at it as an opportunity to support their creativity and problem-solving abilities.


10 Ways To Get Active With Your Kids…And Make It Fun!

Family take walk in autumn forest flying kitePhysical activity helps children grow strong bones, maintain a healthy weight and discover the world around them. Best of all, it’s great fun.

All children should be physically active for at least one hour a day. You can help by encouraging your child to find activities they enjoy, and by building physical activity into family life. Most children love running around a park or playing in a playground.

One reason why physical activity in childhood is so important is because it helps your child to maintain a healthy weight.

But that’s not the only reason. Physical activity is a part of the way children discover the world and themselves. It helps to build strong muscles and healthy bones, as well as to improve self-confidence.

You can find advice on eating well and getting active as a family at the Change4Life website.

Bristol University’s professor of exercise and health sciences, Ken Fox, has 10 suggestions that can make exercise fun for all the family.

Ten activity tips for children

1. Walk or cycle to and from school with the kids as often as possible. Read about the health benefits of cycling.

2. Build a den or treehouse with them in the school holidays. Or, under supervision, encourage them to climb a tree or two.

3. Go roller skating, roller blading or skateboarding, indoor or out. In winter, go ice skating. Kids also love scooters.

4. Do an activity challenge together, such as working towards a fun run or a walk for charity.

5. Take the dog for a walk. If you don’t have one of your own, ask to borrow a neighbour’s or friend’s dog and take it for a walk.

6. Support your kids in sports, clubs or any other activities that may interest them. Joining a weekend club sport ensures commitment to a team and regular exercise. Find all kinds of sporting facilities in your area (*in the UK).

7. Find time every weekend to do something active with your children. Play frisbee or football in the park, go trampolining or try indoor rock climbing.

8. Fly a kite. The Kite Society of Great Britain’s website (*in the UK – American Kitefliers Association in the US) lists a number of groups that regularly meet for special flying days with experienced members who offer advice and assistance. Some also run kite-making workshops.

9. Try a beach holiday. When they hit the sand, children find a multitude of ways to exercise, including games, swimming and plenty of running around. Or try an activity-based holiday. Read more about healthy holidays with children and activity holidays.

10. The National Parks website (*in the UK – National Park Service in the US) has lists of events such as guided walks and children’s fun days, for fresh ideas for active days out.

Editor’s Note: *clarification provided for our US readers.

12 Benefits of Unscheduled Play for Our Stressed-Out Kids

kids_jump_logOkay folks, I’m concerned. Over the last few weeks I’ve been reviewing studies involving children and play. “Shocked” and “disturbed” are the two words that describe how I feel when reading those reports.

Every study reaches one sad conclusion: Good old-fashioned play (remember that?) is quickly becoming an endangered pastime for today’s plugged-in, over-scheduled, too supervised kids.

Worse yet, play is not only disappearing from our homes and neighborhoods, but our schools as well. And this comes at the same time when reports show that stress is mounting to new heights in our kids while their mental health has plummeted to a twenty-five year all-time low. A good old fashioned childhood of cloud-gazing, leaf-kicking, and hill rolling is disappearing to be replaced by screens, earplugs, flashcards and tutors.

Facts About Today’s Play-Deprived Kids

  • Since the late 1970s there’s been a 25% drop in our children’s free play and a 50% drop in unstructured outdoor activities
  • Since the late 1970s kids time in organized, adult-supervised sports have doubled and the number of minutes devoted each week to passive leisure, not including watching television, has increased from 30 minutes to more than three hours
  • The average U.S. child is now “plugged-in” to some kind of digital device–not including cell phone and text–71/2 hours a day

The loss of play and even skepticism about its value may be partly due to a more competitive, “no-child left untested era” (don’t get me started on that one…), our increasingly hurried, quicker-pace life style, and the belief we have to schedule our kids with activity after activity to stretch those IQ points. Now Tiger Mom–and every media outlet our there appearing to quote her–is urging every so-called “Western” mom to halt those play dates and any child-chosen activity.

Whatever the reason, today’s kids are playing less and many experts–and the kids–are crying, “Foul!” and with good reason. They are growing up in a play-deprived world. Dozens of studies prove that play is not just a luxury but essential to our children’s healthy development.

12 Scientific Benefits of Play

We’ve always known that “kids and play” are just a natural combo. But new research also shows that letting kids engage in self-directed play has immense value for their social, emotional, cognitive and physical growth. Here are just a few of the proven scientific benefits of letting our kids get messy and doing something besides clicking those darn keypads and video controllers and paper and pencil tasks:

1. Play boosts children’s creativity and imagination

Play gives children the chance to invent, build, expand, explore and develop a whole different part of the brain.

2. Play stretches our children’s attention span

Playing outdoors just 30 minutes a day increases child’s ability to focus and pay attention.

3. Play and rough-housing boost boys’ problem solving abilities

The more elementary school-boys engaged in rough-housing, the better they scored on a test of social problem solving. (Don’t ya love that one!)

4. Play boosts self-confidence and self-regulation

Kids learn to become masters of their own destiny without an adult directing, pushing, managing or scheduling.

5. Play forges friendships, strengthens social competence and teaches social skills

Undirected (which means an adult isn’t there guiding and directing each moment) play allows kids to learn how to work in groups, share, negotiate, communicate and develop core social skills they need not only now but for the rest of their lives.

6. Play helps kids learn to enjoy just being in their own company, entertain themselves and develop identity

Ease that guilt when your kid says, “I’m bored, Mom!” Our kids must learn to enjoy their own company!

7. Play reduces children’s anxiety and diminishes stress

A study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry shows that play is also critical for our children’s emotional health because it helps kids work through anxiety and reduce stress.

8. Play creates joyful memories of childhood

Come on, no kid is going to remember the car pools and worksheets but the swings, jumping in leaves, playing leapfrog in the mud, blowing bubbles, building forts–those are the unforgettable childhood moments. Sigh!

9. Play boosts physical health and reduces risk of obesity

Henry Joseph Legere, MD, author of Raising Healthy Eaters points out: “Rises in screen time have led to the rise of a sedentary lifestyle for our children. In 1982, the childhood obesity prevalence in the United States was actually less than 4 percent. By 2004, that number had grown to about 30 percent.”

10. Play expands our kids minds and neurological development

Self-initiated play improve skills such as guessing, figuring, and interpreting is important to brain development and learning. It helps kids learn to self-regulated as well as stretch critical thinking and focusing skills.

11. Play builds new competencies, leadership skills, teaches lifelong hobbies, and develops resilience

“Play is what allows kids to manipulate their environment,” says a report written by Kenneth Ginsburg, M.D. of the AAP, “And how you manipulate your environment is about how you begin to take control, how you begin to develop your senses, how you view the world.”

12. Play nurtures the parent-child bond

Child-driven play also improves our parent-kid relationship.Play offers a wonderful opportunity for parents to see the world from our children’s eyes as well as strengthen our relationship when we join in.

In fact, playing with our kids is one of the few times when clocks stop and stress fades. There’s no judgments, schedules or time constraints that worry us. It’s just a glorious opportunity to give our kids our full presence, be in their space and enjoy each other’s company, and build those wonderful childhood memories. Keep in mind folks, there’s no rewind button when it comes to childhood!

So parents, why not just this week push pause and tune into your kids’ schedule? I dare you: take a Reality Check and see just how how unstructured, unsupervised time your kid has. While you’re at it, here are a few questions to help you assess if play should be added to the “Endangered Species List” at your home.

REALITY CHECK: Could Your Kids Be ‘Play Deprived’?

  • How much are your kids plugged into some kind of a digital device?
  • How often are your kids glued to that TV or clicking that keypad?
  • How much free time do your kids have that is unscheduled, unplanned, unsupervised?
  • How often do your kids go outdoors to just recompress?
  • Do your kids know how to entertain themselves solo an adult, coach, teacher, or you whether it be indoors or out?
  • Do your kids enjoy the great outdoors?
  • How often (if ever) do your kids see you throwing off your shoes and joining in the unplanned, spontaneous fun with them?
  • Do your kids know outdoor age-appropriate games and have the equipment for those activities whether it be hopscotch, jump rope, Red Rover, I Spy, basketball, freeze-tag, kick the can, skateboarding?
  • Do your kids know how to self-entertain and do activities that would nurture their creativity or imagination on a regular basis?
  • Do you set a rule that when friends come to the house a minimum or no plugged-in devices are allowed?
  • Would your kid say that you encourage them to play unstructured?
  • How do you respond when your kids get messy? (Just asking…but remember letting your kids get messy every now and then is actually a great way to teach them that nobody’s perfect, accidents do happen, and teaches them to enjoy themselves and their own company).

Let’s remember: Play is an essential — not a luxury – for our children’s well-being. Thirty years of solid child development research confirms that play is crucial for our children’s social, emotional, physical and cognitive growth. So check into your kids’ lives and make sure at least a bit of “free time” is a part of their waking hours.

What do you think? Are our kids becoming play-deprived? And if they are, what do you see as the disadvantages?


UnSelfie 140x210Teens today are 40 percent less empathetic than they were thirty years ago. Why is a lack of empathy—along with the self-absorption epidemic Dr. Michele Borba calls the Selfie Syndrome—so dangerous? First, it hurts kids’ academic performance and leads to bullying behaviors. Also, it correlates with more cheating and less resilience. And once children grow up, it hampers their ability to collaborate, innovate and problem-solve—all must-have skills for the global economy. The good news? Empathy is a trait that can be taught and nurtured. UnSelfie is a blueprint for parents and educators who want activate our children’s hearts and shift their focus from I, me, and mine… to we, us, and ours. It’s time to include “empathy” in our parenting and teaching! UnSelfie is AVAILABLE NOW at

Video: Dyslexia Insights from a Young Man and a Psychologist

Dyslexia is a common type of learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in the reading and spelling of words. In this video, Daniel tells his story and an expert gives advice on symptoms, causes and treatment approaches.

Editor’s Note: Video Highlights

Daniel’s perspective: Daniel is a college student and was recently diagnosed with dyslexia

  • Girl point finger at lettersDaniel’s dyslexia issue is processing speed and short term memory
  • He found math hard in school and it was difficult to first learn new things – so he was often left behind
  • Once he was diagnosed, some advice and support helped him:
    • He was given a keyboard to take into lectures, since he could type faster than writing by hand
    • For reading, he got advice to read several words at once – rather than each individual word – it was tiring him out to read before
  • Daniel says he has a terrible short term member but a great long-term memory – if he learns something very carefully, he will always remember it – so he can build off this strength
  • It was easier after he was diagnosed: “I felt like, actually there Is something that is causing it, so I could find ways to help myself then.”
  • “It was far more useful knowing I had dyslexia rather than just struggling and not knowing why.”

Expert perspective: Dr. David McLoughlin is a psychologist who treats children with dyslexia in his practice

  • Dyslexia is a problem with the language-processing area of the brain which impacts on reading and spelling
  • However, it also impacts a broader range of tasks – such as time management, organization and planning – so rather than just a memory or processing issue, it’s a much bigger syndrome
  • Dyslexia runs in families – we know this from twin studies, research and clinical practice
  • The standard diagnosis process includes measurement of the general ability – and then looking at whether achievements in reading, writing, spelling or math are inconsistent with the child’s general level of functioning
    • They then look at factors in the testing – like memory or processing skills – that might explain any differences
  • General advice for parents of a child with dyslexia:
    • Get them to read – but don’t over-correct them
    • Expect them to forget – reward them for remembering
    • As they get older self-understanding becomes very important
  • The reassuring thing is that if children are properly understood and have the opportunity to develop skills and alternative techniques – they can pursue whatever they are capable of
    • They just have to do things differently

Keep Active with Ultimate Summer Family Adventures

family bicycle safetySummer is a great time to increase physical activity for you and your family. There are lots of opportunities not available in winter (depending on where you live) and the longer days give ample time to get outside. However, it can also be a time when boredom sets in as kids lose their usual school-driven routine…and the temptation of sedentary video games is usually close at hand.

This summer, my family is doing better at being active and keeping boredom at bay – thanks to an idea from my thirteen year-old son (Thanks Elliott!). He calls it “Ultimate AdventurouSummer” (yes, the words are supposed to run together – he thinks it’s so clever!). Basically it involves a hat (or jar) full of fun family activities that you pull from randomly on a weekly basis. We have already engaged in mountain biking, a local ropes course (Go Ape), and a family badminton tournament. In addition to the physical activity benefits, we’ve also had a lot of fun together as a family, so it’s been great for bonding. Below is my son’s recipe for ultimate summer adventures.

Developing Ideas

  • Everyone in the family should come up with at least 5 ideas (oh, and they can’t just be the everyday activities like walking the dog or going for a family bike ride)
  • Most should be active ideas – but you can include projects too
  • Each should be feasible to do in one day or a weekend with not too much prep (we usually pick the week’s idea on Monday to do on the weekend)
  • It helps to do a little research on the ideas and activities in your area – it can be a great excuse to finally visit some local parks or activity centers
  • HOLD A FAMILY MEETING – review all the ideas and make any changes that are needed – discard any that are not appropriate (e.g. that mom and dad are not willing or able to do…bungie jumping?? – or that won’t work for the whole family)
  • Get the kids to write each approved activity on a slip of paper and pop them into the official summer fun jar or hat!

Doing the Adventures

  • Pick an idea several days ahead – you may need to do some preparation or get materials (we had to patch a tire for mountain biking) – plus this gives time for everyone to discuss and plan the adventure…which is part of the fun
  • Plan the activities – AND CHECK THE WEATHER FORECAST – you may only have a few windows for some activities depending on rain/etc.
  • Do a checklist of things you need to take with you….we’ve had to go back home a couple of times
  • Build in some flexibility – we kept an idea for just my son and husband aside for a weekend when I was going to be away
  • Go out and have fun – and get active!

Here is a sample of some of our ideas:

  • Mountain biking
  • Ropes course (ropes climbing and zipline course)
  • Badminton tournament
  • Kayaking
  • Hiking at a local state park with our dogs
  • Parcour (at a local course)
  • Frisbee golf (who knew??)
  • We also included some less active, but fun projects:
    • Science project, from our son’s Backyard Ballistics book
    • Cooking a completely new meal, including a trip to a Farmer’s Market

We’ve already seen a lot of benefits from our Ultimate Adventurous Summer. It’s actually been a lot of fun, and since it’s kid-directed to a large extent, our son has been really engaged in the activities – including the preparations. Plus we’ve all been getting active…the ropes course required a good amount of exertion, but was a lot more fun than I expected. And we’ve created a lot of good family memories!

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