The new school year is now in full swing and parents and children alike are transitioning to a new routine. The laid back summer lifestyle is slowly being replaced with homework and after school activities. A seemingly endless list of events, tryouts and signups are filling the top of parents' to do lists. After all, school usually means more sitting time for our children and less time for free, unstructured play.
A big priority with raising healthy children is keeping them active, which can be difficult with jam packed schedules and the decline in physical education and recess time in schools. Only one in four children get the CDC’s recommended 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day, with the number of younger kids only slightly higher. To ensure kids are keeping active, parents often opt to have their young children play structured team sports. Recreational and competitive sports are an excellent way to get children involved in team activities and routine physical activity. Some children thrive in competitive team dynamics and the routine carries them through their high school years. However, 70% of children leave organized sports by the age 13, according to research by the National Alliance for Sports. And sometimes the schedule, time commitment and cost of sports participation is an insurmountable challenge for families. Sports are a great option but definitely not the only way to get kids involved in activities that will teach them to adopt a healthy and active lifestyle through adulthood.
While kids may not be getting as much physical activity and play time as they should at school, the good news is that there are many ways to incorporate fun, active play activities into your children's and family's every day routine. To start, we sometimes take for granted the importance of free, unstructured play for early childhood development. Free or unstructured play is any activity that kids do on their own without instructions or directions set by an adult. Free play includes running around, playing tag, jumping rope, climbing, and even dancing. Free play is critical to raising children who are healthy, resilient and ready for life. It can be especially important for children who do not participate in team sports. Research shows that unstructured play is critical for kids to learn problem-solving, collaboration, conflict resolution and creativity, all 21st century skills needed to succeed in school and as adults.
When kids are physically active, they learn better, are more confident and are healthier. Whatever your family's interest, we offer 10 insanely fun activities – some structured and unstructured – geared to the child who may not be actively engaged in team sports. Enjoy the beautiful Fall weather and try some of these outdoor and indoor activities around Boston and beyond.
1. Explore New Playgrounds. Create a bucket list for cool parks to visit in and outside your neighborhood. Kids love going to new places that invite open play and where they can explore new play structures. Set a goal to visit 3-5 new parks with structures your kids may enjoy such as zip lines, rope nests, climbing walls and even hiking trails. Massachusetts is home to some of the country’s best playgrounds. Start with Only In Your State’s Guide to 10 Amazing Playgrounds in Massachusetts and the INDEX’s Listing to barrier free playgrounds in Massachusetts.
2. Play Outside the Box. When the playground becomes boring, it may be time to jump off the walls. Specialty facilities like trampolines and rock climbing are growing and many offer something fun and active you can do with your children. Some cool places to try:
- Brooklyn Boulders, Metro Rock and Rock Spot are indoor climbing gyms that offer bouldering, belaying, and youth programs to teach kids to rock climb.
- Gymja Warrior in Danvers is a gym with obstacles inspired by the American Ninja Warrior TV show and features gymnastics and parkour training.
- Launch and Sky Zone are indoor trampoline parks that feature free style bouncing, dodge ball and other amusements.
3. Free Running and Parkour. If you’ve seen people jumping from buildings and vault over walls, you’re probably watching the burgeoning urban sport called Parkour. Parkour, also known as free-running, is a non-competitive way to train the human body to move efficiently using the natural environment around us. Parkour is an athletic and acrobatic discipline that involves using our body movements fluidly: running, jumping, climbing, tumbling and more. Kids easily gravitate to Parkour because it feels like play in the natural environment. For local classes, try Parkour Generations or check out New England Parkour’s map for training grounds near you.
4. Boxing and Mixed Martial Arts. Traditional mixed martial arts – MMA – are great for teaching kids discipline, strength and self-defense skills. Martial arts training takes time and effort, and the stylized nature of classes, competitions and belts is not for everyone. For a less formal type of MMA class, try a kids boxing or self-defense skills class. Peter Welch’s Gym and Ultimate Self Defense in Boston offer challenging kids classes without the long-term commitment. Level Ground MMA runs programs for urban teens interested in obtaining a mixed martial arts student trainer certification. YMCA’s also offer a variety of martial arts programs from Karate to Soo Bahk Do.
5. Skateboarding. What is often perceived as an underground culture activity, skateboarding and scooting as its close second, has now gone mainstream. Like bike riding, skateboarding is now becoming one of those basic movement skills all kids should learn. Skateboards and scooters are a great way to get around (especially in traffic-congested areas). For skateboarding lessons and safety tips, visit Skate Catalyst and scope out the newest skate parks in Massachusetts – the Lynch Family Skatepark at the Charles River Conservancy in Cambridge and Orchard Conservatory Skatepark at Pop-Allston.
6. Biking. Kids love cycling - it's fun, adventurous and gives them the freedom and independence to get around. Best of all, you can get even the youngest ones to start enjoying cycling as a family. Cycling has a variety of benefits for kids, from improving their fitness, balance and coordination to offering them a healthy outdoor activity that will last a lifetime. Teaching kids cycling safety and urban biking skills is easier than ever. Bowdoin Bike School in Dorchester offers a youth cycling club for kids 12 and older and bicycle mechanics classes. Landry’s bicycles in Somerville also has basic bike riding skills classes for adults and young people. Don’t have a bike? Hubway offers a low-cost bike sharing system to get around in Boston, Brookline, Cambridge and Somerville. Take advantage of Greater Boston’s great bicycle trails and pick one from this top ten list.
7. Road races. Kids enjoy individual competition just as much as adults. When you participate in a road race as a family, parents set a good example for living an active lifestyle. You can search for races in your area through www.active.com or www.runningintheusa.com. A few races we like are:
- Reebok Canton Road Race – September 25, 2016, Canton. Offers a 5K, 10K and Kids 1-mile Fun Run.
- Boston Commons Costume Dash 5k – October 29, 2016, Boston. Put on your craziest costume and get ready for five kilometers of fun starting at Copley Square and finishing in Boston Common. Minimum age: 10 years old
- Franklin Park Coalition Turkey Trot – November 24, 2016, Franklin Park. A 5K along Boston’s most beautiful running route. Kids, dogs of all ages, and speeds welcome.
8. Obstacle Racing. If your kids are thrill seekers, an extreme obstacle course or mud run may be more their speed. Some obstacle course races are just for kids. Mudrunfun.com makes it easy to find obstacle course races and mud runs in your area. Remember to train for these obstacle events. Reimagine Play offers pop-up classes and clinics for kids to get them in shape and ready for these challenges. Our top picks are:
- Your First Mud Run – September 18, 2016, Holyoke. The only mud run in the country designed so both parents and kids can run together. Course is 1.5 - 2 miles and includes 10+ obstacles that are designed for adults and kids.
- Great Amazing Race – October 8, 2016, Carlisle. Complete a one-mile cross-country course sprinkled with up to eight fun-filled outdoor challenges.
- Spartan Race and Spartan Kids – November 12-13, 2016, Fenway Park, Boston – The Reebok Spartan Sprint includes a run for kids with scaled down obstacles and mini festival area filled with games and children’s challenges.
9. Hip Hop and Break Dancing. For youngsters who adore the dance floor, hip-hop, break dancing and even Salsa can offer fun dance forms that they can do anywhere and anytime. Some great dance studios geared to these edgier dance forms include Urbanity Dance in Boston, Star Dance School in Allston and the Dance Complex in Cambridge. The Academy of Creative Arts in Burlington offers unique hard to find dance forms, including Bollywood, Kathak and Odissi dance forms for kids and adults.
10. Active Gaming. If your kids are more of the tech types, a great alternative is reality gaming. Boda Borg in Malden promises to transport you into a real-world gaming environment in an experience they call Questing. Teams of 3-5 participants tackle a variety of mental and physical challenges, many of which will make you break a sweat! The Escape Room and Boxaroo in Boston offer a pop-up interactive experience where you and your teammates are locked in a themed room for 60 minutes with the sole mission of escaping by solving mind-bending riddles and brainteasers.
Need more fitness inspiration? In honor of National Child Obesity Awareness Month, partner up with your kids to try 1-2 new activities this month. Whether its biking, skateboarding, walking to school or running a race on the weekend, participating in non-sports group activities can help kids develop a life-long passion for exercise and a healthy lifestyle.
About the Author
Betty Francisco is the Founder and CEO of Reimagine Play, a Boston-based start-up bringing fun, play-inspired fitness and healthy-eating programs to school-age kids and teens. Tessa Graham, a nutrition instructor and blogger, currently working as a substitute teacher for Boston Public Schools contributed to this article.