Saturday 18 August 2018

The 15 best strategies to get your whole family exercising

The days are getting brighter so it's time to come out of hibernation and turn the great outdoors into an adventure playground for all the family. Áilín Quinlan finds out how

Get the kids off the couch and away from the screen - and remember to join in the fun as well
Get the kids off the couch and away from the screen - and remember to join in the fun as well

Research shows that four out of five children in Ireland are not getting enough physical exercise - but how do you get sedentary tech-obsessed kids away from their screens and onto their feet?

We asked the experts for their best strategies to get the whole family out of doors and exercising as the days get longer.

1 Give them your undivided attention

"The most effective tool in your adventuring armoury is your undivided attention," declares Neil Sinclair, ex-commando and author of the popular Commando Dad parenting series.

"You can't expect your troopers to dis-engage from their screens if you are still updating your Twitter status every two minutes," says Sinclair, a father of three, and a former member of the Royal Engineers.

"I've taken my kids to a lot of places, and for me being an active parent is not just about taking the children somewhere and expecting them to be active.

"I've seen parents plonking children in a park and then sitting down on a bench with their phones.

"If the children look up and you're not engaging with them, either physically or with your eyes, they'll see your priority is your phone and not the physical activity."

2 Have a built-in reward

Organise a nice treat at the end of your activity, recommends Ed Ledesma, owner of the family camping firm, Tipi Adventures, who runs an afterschool 'outdoors programme' for children of primary-school age in the Dublin suburbs.

He believes a healthy, edible reward at the end of the activity is a great motivator.

"I find that children are extremely interested in practical life skills.

"I teach fire-craft, for example, how to set and light a campfire.

"They children collect the firewood, build a fire and learn how to boil water.

"Then they enjoy their reward - cooking curried pot noodles over the fire."

Sometimes, he says, they even slice up some favourite raw veggies and throw those into the pot as well.

3 Children love a challenge

"I find children really enjoy being asked to do something new - for example, to set up their own camp," says Ed Ledesma. Part of his outdoors programme includes teaching children how to erect a simple shelter using a tarpaulin and found materials. And of course, along with this they also learn other useful and very practical skills - such as how to tie different kinds of knot.

4 Have Fun

Prioritise having fun - remember, when it comes to physical exercise, not every child is a big fan of sports. Therefore, to encourage children to get moving, make fun your number one priority, advises John Free, a scout leader for 15 years with the 3rd Kildare and 1st Celbridge Scout troop who oversees regular scouting activities for some 160 children and teenagers between the ages of six and 18.

"Fun is the single biggest motivator when you are dealing with children and many children really like doing practical fun activities," says John.

5 Lead by Example

"If your troopers see you being physically active, they will want to be active as well," says Sinclair.

So, he says, if, for example, you've all decided to turn the kitchen table into a "den", you lead the mission, making sure that all the "troops" are involved in planning the "mission brief" - that is, making a list and sharing ideas about what's needed to make the activity a success, he advises.

"You, the dad or mum, can be the den commander and allocate tasks to each child - collecting pillows, blankets, torches and snacks. Give every child a specific role."

6 Prioritise team work, not competition

When you're devising a physical activity in which children will be involved - such as going on a nature hike or building a simple ladder out of ropes and sticks - the focus should be on working together to finish an activity, recommends John Free.

"Don't turn it into a competition because this can put pressure on kids and the idea is to get them involved in a physical activity which engages them and which allows them some enjoyable interaction with other kids.

"Prioritise the idea of teamwork and being involved, rather than competing against other children," he suggests.

7 Re-connect with your inner child

Think about something you really loved to do when you were young - and do it with your kids, suggests Neil Sinclair.

"For me, it was tree-climbing, which is the most fantastic activity and very physical. It's phenomenally exciting. I still love climbing trees," he recalls.

"Your own passion is something which will fire your children to do something, so don't start an activity that makes you uncomfortable or unsure, because your kids will pick up on that. Use your common-sense and your own sense of comfort in terms of what activity you choose," he advises.

8 Appeal to children's sense of curiosity

Present children with the unexpected and awaken their curiosity, advises Ed Ledesma, who says that when he wants to take children on a hike through the woods to learn about trees, he shows them a piece of cutlery or a rough bowl he has made from a local tree.

"I show them some spoons I've carved out of different types of trees. Showing them the spoons really gets them interested in going on the hike to identify the trees that I have used to make rough bowls or baskets or spoons from, for example, silver birches."

Along the hike, Ed also makes a point of asking children questions to keep them interested.

"What kind of things would this tree be good for? And what could you make from these berries?"

9 Plan ahead

"Spending even a little time planning your mission pays off massively," declares Neil Sinclair.

"Check what's on in your local area, in terms of the library of the local park, and do a weather check the night before," he suggests, adding that it's a good idea to have a wet-weather activity as back-up.

"For example, if you decide to take the children to the beach to explore rock pools, check in advance that the tide will be out."

It's also a good idea, suggests Neil, to make out a simple spotting sheet so that the children can tick off natural seashore features they happen to spot such as crabs, mussels or starfish or shells. And don't forget to prepare a picnic.

10 Give them space

If you're really serious about getting your kids physically active, you have to give them space, explains John Free.

"Bring them somewhere where there's lots of space - whether it's a local beach or a park, forest or playground - to let off steam," he advises.

"Children love to have space and they cannot be really physically active if they don't have it. This is a very simple thing, but it's hugely important, especially these days when many housing estates do not have spacious green play areas, and there's often no way to walk to school safely."

11 Heighten their sense of adventure

Offer them the opportunity to do something really new, says Ed Ledesma.

"A favourite activity of mine is 'low ropes' ­- we string a rope between multiple trees, only about six or seven inches off the ground, and the children have to balance on the rope and walk.

"It's an activity that requires both balance and concentration and they love it."

12 Allow them to take the initiative

Encourage children to take the initiative and to be in control of an activity themselves, advises John Free.

"See yourself, the parent, primarily as the facilitator, while the child helps to plan the activity - for example, if the family is planning to go zip-lining, get the children involved in finding out where zip-lining activities are available and when the family could go.

"It gives children great satisfaction to plan and organise an activity - the parent will oversee the activities to ensure everyone is safe but remember, letting them plan an activity really motivates them."

13 Encourage interaction with other children

Interaction with other children is a huge motivator for getting kids involved in physical activity, says John Free.

"A group situation where they are being physically challenged while interacting with other children is a great way to keep them interested in exercise - the scout and guide organisations are a great way of doing this," says John, who also believes that locally-organised family days, which encourage children to be physically active while interacting with others in a fun, sociable environment .

"All of our new scout membership generally happens through word of mouth between children," he says.

14 Nurture a sense of fulfilment

Aim for a sense of fulfilment by providing children with challenges and tasks that are within their abilities, says Ed.

"Carrying out the tasks they are presented with will motivate them to go on and do more - you have to make sure that the activity that you give them is within their range of capability," he explains.

"For example, once they achieve an easier challenge such as basic shelter-building, they'll be more prepared to design and build their own shelter and create it from the debris they find in their environment."

15 Improvise - Adapt, Overcome

Mission failures will happen from time to time despite your best efforts, warns Sinclair, but when something goes pear-shaped, stay calm. "These failures can be golden opportunities to teach your troopers about dealing with disappointment and the importance of resilience," he explains, adding that both are key skills that will stand them in good stead when in adulthood.

"Don't expect 100pc success every time - not everything will work with children all the time, despite your best planning and preparation.

"I once took my children to visit an urban farm and when we got there it was closed. It was meant to be open that day, but it was shut.

"Don't get stressed about a situation you have no control over; improvise and adapt."

• You can check out dayout.ie/free-days-out or familyfun.ie for some more ideas

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