Mark Rogers is the author of the Simply Human blog and host of the Simply Human Podcast. He has three kids under the age of six and is a certified strength and conditioning coach. Mark is passionate about educating his fellow humans on the ways we were designed to eat, sleep, move and enjoy our lives… and making sure we pass that knowledge along to our children! Connect with Mark on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
Our brains are pretty smart. Well, I can’t speak for myself I guess… but in general, the brain is a very complicated, amazing and efficient organ. Human brains invented the suitcase wheel. The Three-Velcro tennis shoe (so much easier than tying your shoes). The iPhone/wallet thing. And food trucks.
Our species got to where it is today because our brains trust their instincts, save energy whenever possible, and reinforce the things they use most.
So what in the world does any of this have to do with kids and natural movement patterns?
Well, I have no idea.
JOKES! I DO have an idea… and here it goes.
Let’s break-down those three things I just mentioned and tie it in with kids and moving:
- trusting instincts
- preserving energy
- reinforcing stuff it uses
If you could only use one word to describe a puppy or a lion cub or any small, young animal, you’d be hard-pressed NOT to use the word ‘playful.’ Rolling around, fighting, spinning, jumping, and wrestling are all part of the young animals hard-wiring. Why is that?
I believe (as do many others) that many types of movement that we call play in cubs or pups resemble much more important movements that a young animal will have to do as an adult: fight, hunt, reproduce, etc. That playful instinct has been good to the brains it inhabits. The play instinct is there for a reason.
Human children have that same playful instinct. Don’t believe me? Go to a pre-school and watch for about 30 seconds. Actually, if you don’t have kids and plan to someday, don’t do that because you may find yourself running away from the school screaming yourself hoarse.
But in our society, we try and snuff out that instinct. We stuff small children in small desks all day then expect them to sit at the dinner table quietly, do their homework at their tiny, cubicle-like desks, and go to bed when the lights go out without a fuss. Sounds great, right? Yeah. Maybe if you’re Georg Von Trapp.
Kids have an instinct to move — more on that later.
If our brains’ physical needs are met and no hunger or thirst abounds, they are designed to reserve power and build up energy for the next active period of getting food and water. If needs are met and your brain sees a chair, what’s it going to do? You guessed it… sit down. That characteristic is great in the wild, but not so great in the society we’ve built up around ourselves where convenience reigns supreme.
Hey Brain, you want convenience? How about we sit down and let an engine propel us to a place that gives us food, then sit down on the way home, sit down inside while we eat, then sit at a computer and socialize all night or watch TV on our rears. Perfect, right Brain?
No. Not perfect.
In this country, very few people are ever truly hungry or thirsty (I obviously know it happens, but right now I’m talking to the people who have computers and time to read articles about getting their kids to move). So if the majority of our needs are met, and chairs and couches are all around… you see where I’m going with this. Our brains naturally drive us to sit and lay down as much as possible to preserve energy for the time we will be up and super-active trying to meet our physical needs. But in our society, that active time never happens naturally. That food and water attainment period is also used to make us strong and fit – it never happens naturally now, so naturally the majority of us are weak and unfit. So what can we do about that for our kids? Almost there.
Reinforcing Stuff It Uses
There’s no doubt why strength training is so good for you. Putting your muscles, bones and connective tissue under healthy amounts of load makes those areas stronger.
If you walk a lot, you’ll be a good walker. If you’re a logger, you’re going to have super strong arms. If you play soccer all day every day, you’re going to be really good at juggling the ball and running.
The opposite is also true. If you DON’T use stuff, your brain will stop reinforcing that stuff. That’s why bones and joints and muscles get weak — because they’re not USED. Ever seen an older person all hunched over and not able to stand up straight? Most likely that’s not an acute back injury. More likely it’s a chronic reinforcement of that flexed, hunched over position over a lifetime. The body reinforces things and positions that it spends most of its time doing or in.
Tying It All In
So how can we use our kids’ brains to make them healthy and get them to move in healthy, natural ways?
You create an atmosphere which supports their innate desire to move and stifles the tendency to sit down.
If a child’s physical needs are met and he walks into his playroom which is fully loaded with a bean bag chair and a Super Nintendo (shut up, I’m old), what do you think that child is going to do? You guessed it! Sit down and play Nintendo (probably something like Madden ‘94 or some other awesome game).
But what if that playroom is void of chairs, couches, and game systems? What if that playroom had a balance beam or a trapeze hanging from the ceiling, or a jump rope, or a hoola-hoop, or there’s a door to the yard where a basketball hoop or a soccer ball or a trampoline or a jungle gym await like acorns in squirrel-ville — just waiting to be attacked?
An unconditioned child won’t just sit on the floor and cry until he or she can watch TV. They’ll play with all that stuff. Their innate desire to play and move will be met. The benefits of this type of environment are many: teaching them to move and be active, reinforcing and strengthening their little feet and arms and back muscles, getting fresh air from the outside in their lungs (if you live somewhere other than International Falls, MN).
You might be able to make rules about games and screens and TVs, and your kids might actually follow those rules. But, in my opinion, just like it’s easier to eat healthy if you don’t have a bunch of junk in your pantry, it’ll be easier to move and play and be active in an atmosphere where the “junk” doesn’t exist.
Go on walks.
Sit on the kitchen floor together and eat dinner (put the dog outside if you do this)…or eat outside! (and lock the dog inside in that scenario)
If you’re not going to go so far as to get rid of your couches and chairs (and I’m not there, either) let your kids sit upside down on the couch if they want. Let them explore the space around them and don’t be overly concerned with them having to sit still and have great manners all day (the “move” manners like sitting still — not the please and thank you manners).
Another benefit of this type of environment — when kids have a chance to play for more than the 24 minutes they get at recess every day, you’ll may find that they’re more well-behaved and go to bed easier.
My kids playroom has a trapeze hanging from the ceiling, a balance beam and many other move-oriented devices (playing with little figures and dolls and dress-up has its benefits, too, but this is an article about MOVING). There are no chairs in their playroom. If they sit in there, they’re cross-legged on the ground, which is a better position than sitting in a chair.
You want your kids to avoid having weak bones and joints when they’re older? You want them to not have to THINK about moving? You want them to be active as a just a natural part of their lives?
Then start early and give them an environment of play and natural movement. They may kick and scream when you take the Nintendo out, but they’ll thank you for it later, and, hey, kicking is a form of activity so that’s good, too.
Just remember — kids who move early, keep moving.
(Want to know how Mark installed the trapeze in the playroom? Get the details here.)