The other day, a proud, loving, enthusiastic mom told me, "I like to let my child run around and burn off energy."
You might be surprised to hear that this statement, well-intended though it may be, is a pet peeve of mine. In fact, I'm so peevish about it, I've decided to share a few thoughts on the matter.
To "burn off" means to "exhaust, deplete, waste, get rid of." And, of course, when it comes to little ones, that usually means getting those ants out of their pants. Now, in my line of work I certainly understand antsy kids, and appreciate any parent wise enough to spot the signals and let their kids loose. But it's the adult logic that bugs me...
Why do adults think of kids letting loose as wasting energy, when in fact, all that running around and general silliness is the most essential fuel of early childhood development?
I call this "Huff 'n Puff" play. Let's examine it a little more closely...
BODY FREEDOM. Moving his body with abandon is your child's chance to experience every inch of himself without order, structure, or limits. In so many ways, this is how he's getting to know himself.... physically and emotionally. And while it may look wildly silly or out of control to us, this self-exploration is actually helping him learn self-control...
LEARNING LIMITS. Running until you can't run any more is one of nature's clever ways of helping your child understand that there is such a thing as going too far. You see, if it feels good to your child, he's naturally going to want more of it, whether it's running at top speed, roughhousing with his brother, scarfing down more ice cream, or listening to that bedtime story for the 27th time. And while the grown-ups in his life are providing the important boundaries he needs, not until he experiences his own physical limitations... like running until he can't run anymore... will the idea of going too far become real, tangible, and concretely understood.
EMOTIONAL PRACTICE. Life doesn't happen at one speed, nor do emotions. Free play -- with as few restrictions as is safely possible -- gives children a place to practice their emotional range and push beyond what they've felt before. For instance, climbing on the monkeybars is usually an iterative process. Few kids race to the top on the first try. But over time, they will challenge themselves to climb up another level and see how it feels. When they do that, they are empowering themselves to decide what does and doesn't feel right to them... learning the boundaries of their own comfort zone.
THE POWER OF CONCENTRATION. This may surprise you, but in fact, movement is often the way the body assists the brain in getting and staying focused. For instance, think of the last time your preschooler drew a picture at the kitchen table. Chances are, he was moving parts (or all) of his body the whole time -- swinging his legs, standing up and leaning over the table, scratching his head, sticking his tongue out, kneeling on the chair... well, you get the picture.
Adults generally think sitting still is how we concentrate, when in fact, it's likely that kind of fidgeting is signaling your child's earnest effort to stay on task. These natural movements are triggered by the Reticular Activating System -- a sort of early warning system in the brain that sends signals to the body to start moving in order to “wake up” the cortex -- the thinking part of the brain.
In other words, movement helps us stop and think, especially when we're running at top speed...
MINDFULNESS. When a young child (or for that matter, anyone of any age), is fully engaged in physical activity the body and brain are harmonized. Endorphins start the party and before you know it, you've lost all track of what's past or what's next, content to be in the moment and with the movement. For little ones, I like to think of movement as their form of meditation. I call it "kiditation" -- that sense of "possibleness" young minds and fertile imaginations need to grasp, interpret and absorb all the new sights, sounds, sensations, experiences, and ideas they encounter each day.
So, the next time you see your child running, jumping, or just plain letting loose, try to see it the way nature does and say to yourself...
"I like to let him run around and LEARN off energy!"
Because, to me, that's energy we can't afford to burn.
As we noted, high energy, Huff 'n Puff play is a form of emotional "practice" which means it's also a form of emotional release. Try this game the next time you BOTH need to let off a little steam!
Young children often don't understand the power of their own voice. To help your child learn to control his own volume... to hear the difference between his "indoor" and "outdoor" voices, try a game of Yahoo!
The object of the game is to be the loudest or the quietest. Have your child repeat Yahoo! after you, challenging him to be quieter or louder than you. Start softly and work your way up.
ROUND 1: WHISPERS. Huddle close and whisper Yahoo!
ROUND 2: INDOOR VOICE. Hold hands and say Yahoo! in your indoor voice.
ROUND 3: OUTDOOR VOICE. High five and holler Yahoo! in your loudest outdoor voice! And don't forget to jump as high as you can when you holler! Be big. Be bold. Be silly!
Encourage your child follow your lead at first, then reverse roles and have him take the lead. And be sure to follow closely so he knows you're listening at any volume.
For more information and tons of great ideas for high-energy play, you're going to love The Art of Roughhousing, a short, fast, fun book full of shenanigans every kid should know! http://theartofroughhousing.com/