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Don’t Hibernate! Good Parenting with Dr. Debbie

By Deborah Wood, Ph.D.

Dear Dr. Debbie,

I have a 4-year old who is full of energy. These cold winter days have been tough. What can we do besides letting him climb the walls?

Standing By


Dear S.B.,

Movement is an important need for young children, indeed for all of us. Here are some reasons and suggestions.

Importance of Bone Growth

Your little one is in a period of bone growth, especially his legs. In addition to calcium rich foods (dark leafy greens and dairy products), proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, he needs weight bearing exercise to draw the calcium and other nutrients into his growing bone cells. Adequate Vitamin D is necessary, too, for calcium absorption. (You can get that from fish oil or sunshine.) According to recent international studies reported in Frontiers in Endocrinology a combination of good nutrition and physical exercise for a child increases “bone mineral density, bone mineral content, and remodeling, which in turn can impact bone health later in life.” The report further explains that, “the positive effects of protein on the bone are exerted only if the energy requirements (i.e., exercise) are satisfied by the carbohydrates and fats.”

Early childhood is the best time to encourage regular exercise, “to assure an optimal skeleton formation” as well as to prevent bone loss issues later in life. The report recommends, “Regular physical activity during growth seems to be one of the most important factors influencing peak bone mass.”

Do you have a hallway suitable for sprinting? Can you clear a space for dancing? Can you direct your son to set goals for a number or a timed duration of jumping jacks? Have you looked into getting a mini-trampoline?

Keeping Up the Coordination

If you’ve kept tabs on your child’s growth since he could stand against a wall while you measured him you can appreciate that he is learning how to move a body with ever-changing proportions. At eighteen months he could do the two-feet per step method for going downstairs, holding onto your hand or a handrail. For each stair step he had to manage placing one foot a distance below equal to the full length of his calf. (For an adult, that’s a distance of 18- 22 inches!) At four he probably walks up and down the stairs effortlessly, even jumping from the second step to the floor below. Now the relative distance of a step is half his calf.

Regular exercise affords him the opportunity to gain coordination as his limbs lengthen and his muscles strengthen.

Take turns to set up an indoor obstacle course under, over, and around furniture. Lie on your backs and volley a beach ball between the two of you with your feet. Practice some yoga poses from a book, website, or video. Make an imaginary balance beam out of a long ribbon laid on the floor (or a line already there in the floor’s design). You can pretend you are tightrope walkers in a circus.

Creating Self-confidence

Mobility means independence. Successful with walking, stair climbing, jumping, and running, a four-year-old seeks new challenges to master. Typically the discovery that jumping off of a second step is possible, most four-year-olds attempt three steps or even four.

Other challenges might involve stretching to reach higher and higher bars on a playground climber, pumping his legs to go higher and higher on a swing, riding a balance bike or scooter, and dribbling a soccer ball from one side of the yard to the other. One of the many benefits of outdoor play is that it naturally invites a child to get better and better with his physical skills. Thus confidence is built.

If you can’t get outside, use couch cushions or large pillows as tumbling mats – roll like a log, do a forward roll. Hold your son’s ankles while he walks on his hands across the length of a room or down a carpeted hallway. If there’s room for it, encourage him to jump from the second step, the third step, and maybe even the fourth! (Perhaps shoeless and landing on a couch cushion!)

Benefits of a Good Mood

There is no question that mental health is benefitted by physical activity. “Feel-good  chemicals in the brain, known as endorphins, are released by the brain during physical activity and help to improve mood, energy levels and even sleep” says the AboutKidsHealth website of the Canadian government. Note that a winter in Canada is much more wintry than one in Maryland. 

A brisk walk on a winter’s day requires proper attire. (Read here about layering to trap your body warmth.) You will likely see busy birds and squirrels going about their winter business. And perhaps your neighbors have been creative with snow sculptures for you to admire. Enjoyable sights are merely a bonus to the uplifted mood granted by a stroll of at least 12 minutes as reported by the National Library of Medicine.

Another bonus will be that you’ll feel good about having gotten some exercise for both of you!

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum.

Chesapeake Children’s Museum invites homeschooling families, with children ages 5-12 to a monthly get together, the third Thursday of each month, at 10:30 am.

Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.

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