Originally published April 8, 2020 in The Boston Globe.
By Chris Larabee
With schools closed, everyone stuck inside, and routines disrupted, experts say staying active is important for the mental and physical wellbeing of children in the community.
Schools and businesses in Newton and throughout Massachusetts are closed until at least May 4 due to the spread of the coronavirus, and students have fewer opportunities for exercise through regular physical education, school sports, and fitness classes. But schools and community organizations have virtual programs for parents to help their children stay active during this time.
Kristen Lee, a professor at Northeastern University who specializes in behavioral sciences, said physical health is essential to staying balanced and productive.
“Movement serves as a vital source of emotional regulation,” Lee said in a phone interview. “We could also think of it as recalibration, and being able to move our bodies really helps regulate our systems that can lead to increased thresholds for coping, better memory, better mood, and focus.”
The loss of a daily schedule and routine can introduce new stressors in a child’s life that they might not encounter normally. To help adjust, Lee recommended parents structure their kids’ days in a way that sets aside time for exercise, which can help reduce stress.
“If they can carve that time out and make that a priority, a lot of other things can fall into place,” Lee said. “If kids are getting a good dose of exercise, they’re more likely to sleep better and that’s just going to overall protect their mental health.”
For families who might not have enough room in their apartment, house, or a yard for play or exercise, Lee said mindful activities such as yoga and meditation can help children and their parents deal with stress.
Lauren Baugher, head coach for girls’ varsity softball at Newton North High School, who also teaches physical education and health and wellness, said she has been checking on her students’ “emotional and mental wellness” through Zoom.
“I’ve really just been checking in on there, as a phys ed, health and wellness teacher,” Baugher said in a phone interview. “It’s hard enough as adults, but as kids, I think it’s almost even a little bit harder because they miss that social connection.”
Baugher said the transition to distance learning has been difficult, but the physical education department has recommended online training programs to students and is working on trying to be “as inclusive as possible” for those who are physically unable to do certain exercises.
Without the structure of school, Baugher said families should encourage their children to move.
“Sports and exercise in school is such a great release for so many kids,” Baugher said. “I would love if kids were active at least an hour every day.”
Despite the closure of physical locations, there are online programs available to parents and guardians through organizations such as the West Suburban YMCA in Newton.
Jack Fucci, president and CEO of West Suburban YMCA, said the organization has suspended all member fees and created “virtual programming” to help families create daily routines.
“We’ve kept all of our directors on staff,” Fucci said in a phone interview. “What we’re encouraging is to help develop a daily and weekly plan that encompasses everything from social engagement, creative arts, STEM, as well as reading and doing that through experiential learning.”
Fucci said West Suburban YMCA is offering programs for all ages ranging from bedtime stories to scavenger hunts as the organization builds its online catalogue.
The local YMCA also has posted prerecorded workouts on its YouTube page and is frequently live-streaming exercise programs hosted by its staff often on its Facebook page.
If parents are finding it difficult to motivate their children to be active, Fucci said, the key to getting kids off the couch is maintaining a schedule and creating enjoyable activities.
“I think it really has to be parents to say ‘we have to do various activities throughout the day’ as an incentive to do maybe what want to do on their own,” Fucci said. “Having that schedule is very very important in keeping some line of normalcy.”
For some children, Lee said the “modern vice” of screens — phones, TVs, and video games — can be a roadblock, but “setting ground rules” and “giving children contrasting experiences” can help to entice them away.
“It’s a very easy kind of candy or low-hanging fruit,” Lee said. “Showing them creative activities that they enjoy outside and giving them those experiences of moving their bodies working up a sweat.”