For kids, free time used to mean playtime. They'd come home from school, grab a snack and bolt out the door to run around with friends. In the summer, they'd play all day.
But now, a lot of kids stay home and watch TV, play video games, go online, or talk on cell phones. All the while, they stuff themselves with goodies they don't burn off in "free play."
Since the late 1970s, children's playtime has fallen 25 percent and their outdoor activities have dropped 50 percent, says the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. Children watch an average of three hours of television a day, says the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Add time spent on TV with time on the computer and with video games, the average time each day that children are sedentary rises to 5-1/2 hours, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
A serious problem
Pediatricians say less free play and less physical education in school fuel childhood obesity. The percentage of children who are overweight has more than doubled in 30 years.
It may seem frivolous, but playing "is an essential activity for a kid to grow up," says Gil Fuld, M.D., an American Academy of Pediatrics spokesman.
"Kids need to be able to play in the woods, play in the dirt," says Dr. Fuld, who practices in New Hampshire. He acknowledges that many parents won't allow that freedom because of media-fanned fear of sexual predators and other dangers. "There's always an adult nearby," he says, and that can put a damper on playtime.
That fear won't go away, Dr. Fuld says, even though there's no proof that the danger is greater now than in the past.
Many parents have turned to organized sports in an attempt to encourage their children to stay active in a safe setting. Some children, however, don't enjoy organized sports or aren't good athletes.
Benefits of exercise
In addition to helping keep weight under control, exercise helps young bodies become stronger. It also lowers the risk for type 2 diabetes, and may keep blood pressure and cholesterol at a normal level. Children who get daily exercise sleep better and are less likely to let daily stresses affect them.
Children should participate in physical activities that build endurance, strength and flexibility. How much exercise is enough? Children 2 and older should get an hour of moderate to vigorous exercise every day, according to 2005 guidelines on diet and exercise from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
One of the best ways to encourage your kids to be more active is to limit the amount of time they watch TV, use the computer or play video games. The AAP recommends no more than one to two hours of media time a day for children 2 years and older.