On Your Health

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How the Environment Affects Your Child's Wellbeing

October is National Children’s Health Month, which brings awareness to protecting and developing children’s health with holistic lifestyle choices and pediatric medical care. 

When we think of children’s health, many think of vaccinations, dental hygiene and healthy nutrition. While those things are essential, we often overlook a key aspect of every child’s wellbeing: playing outside.

That’s right, spending time outdoors is great for your kids’ health, and eight months into the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s more important than ever before to prioritize outdoor activities with your kids. 

How does time in nature affect your kids’ health?

There are a few ways in which time in nature benefits our kids’ health. Every parent will tell you that screen time is difficult to avoid, especially if you try to work from home while taking care of your kids. While screen time might be unavoidable, it’s important to balance that time with outdoor play. 

When kids play outdoors, they engage in unstructured, active playtime. The exertion of outdoor play promotes better physical health, and the imagination of unstructured playtime leads to better cognitive, social and emotional development. Additionally, having screen-free, unstructured playtime increases your child’s attention span. They can engage in imaginative, creative play for longer. In contrast, indoor play and screen time can shorten the attention span by offering immediate access to passive recreation at the touch of a button. 

Playing outdoors also improves the immune system. We are all extra concerned about our kiddos’ health and wellness this cold and flu season, so immune system health is of utmost importance. Breathing in phytoncides, airborne chemicals produced by plants, increases your child’s white blood cell count, helping them fight off sickness and infection. 

Finally, spending time outdoors is great for your child’s mental health. When it comes to COVID-19, we tend to focus more on adult mental health, but our kids are under additional stress too. Many of them sense the anxiety felt by family members. Plus, their routine has changed, with many kids taking school online or wearing masks throughout the day with limited interaction with friends. While these measures are necessary to keep our kids safe, they can take a toll on their mental and emotional wellbeing. Spending time outdoors can reduce anxiety and improve our children’s moods. That’s why it’s so important to encourage them to spend time outdoors every day. 

Environmental health risks to keep in mind

Children’s Health Month is all about raising awareness of environmental hazards that affect our children’s health. Time outdoors can benefit every child, but there are certain health risks to keep in mind. 

If your child has environmental allergies or asthma, talk to your pediatrician about treatments to help your child enjoy the outdoors with minimal symptoms. Always be aware of hazardous substances or pollution in the air, water and soil your child encounters while outdoors. If you’re unsure, you can check with the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality for air pollution, mercury and lead levels and more in your area. 

Even in the safest environment, spending time outdoors exposes children to sunlight. The sun is beneficial because it provides vitamin D, but it can also cause sunburns and increase a child’s risk of skin cancer as they get older. Ensure your child is wearing sunblock and a hat before playing outdoors and finding shaded areas when possible. 
Fun activities for kids to do outside

Unstructured, imaginative play is one of the best activities for your kids when playing outdoors. Encourage them to be creative and adventurous in whatever way they find fun.

Here are a few things you can do with your kids to encourage outdoor playtime.

  • Nature walks - Get the entire family together for a hike or nature walk. If you have a family dog, walking with a pet can be a fun incentive for the whole family to get outdoors. Visit local parks or wildlife areas and encourage your kids to explore the plants and animals that live in that area. 
  • Encourage imagination - Get your kids excited about imaginative play by joining them. Turn your backyard into a jungle, ocean or obstacle course. Lead by example and your kids will follow. If they throw out a wild and creative idea, go with it and encourage them to create their fun.
  • Recreational games - Setting up a few simple outdoor games in your yard is an easy way to get your kids out of the house. Set up a badminton net, basketball hoop or soccer goal. You can also play tag, catch or kickball with limited and portable equipment. Sports or recreational games are accessible, affordable and interactive. Plus, they help your kiddos develop coordination and physical fitness. 

No matter the activity, make sure you and your kids put down your phones, turn off the TV and go outside every day. Not only is it great for their physical health, but it will also improve their mental and emotional wellbeing. This is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic but is a practice we can all carry into our daily lives in the long term. 

If you have questions about your child’s physical or mental health, contact your INTEGRIS Health provider to make an appointment. For more healthy living tips for the whole family, read more from our On Your Health blog

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