MASTER CLASS: Finding family togetherness in active outdoor play

Emmanuel Eyiuche does pushups at one station of a Fitness Scavenger Hunt at River Mountain Park in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Celia Storey)
Emmanuel Eyiuche does pushups at one station of a Fitness Scavenger Hunt at River Mountain Park in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Celia Storey)

As the father of a 7-year-old, I am beginning to understand how regular exercise enhances family time. I admit that I did not fully grasp this benefit until a couple of years ago, mostly because it is a lesson that must be learned through experience.

The idea of "exercise" positively affecting family engagement might seem wrong, but try using the word "play" instead of "exercise." Active, physical play.

Thousands of distractions can detract from family engagement. Computers, televisions, tablets and smartphones present endless self-entertainment options that can lead to unintentional self-isolation. Technology helps us do so many things, but like any powerful tool — it must be managed.

As with other parents, I often find myself casting around for ways that I can have meaningful experiences with my family that don't involve technology. Fall activities such as campfires, caramel apples and pumpkin carving are a few of our favorites.

But some of our most memorable and enjoyable times involve physical play in one form or another. Last night, we made a miniature "haunted house" in the basement that resulted in adults turning into monsters and chasing kids. Hilarity ensued as we all caught our breath on the couch afterward.

And this experience made me think about parents who might not consider playing with their children this way. Some adults don't have the wherewithal to leap around and chase kids. But family physical activity is possible for people of all ages and fitness levels because the point is not to achieve a sweat-dripping workout. It does require a little forethought, but our "haunted house" game would be easy to modify for older parents or for those who are less mobile.

It is simply about learning to appreciate the value of physical activity as a tool to enhance family engagement.

This week's exercise is another way to infuse a little physical fun into family time. The Fitness Scavenger Hunt uses the concept of "gamification" -- you make a game of burning a few extra calories while enjoying the outdoors.

1. Find a neat outdoor spot and think about some landmarks that might be there. In a park, for example, you might find a lamppost, bench, or a picnic table.

2. Write down four or five landmarks you are likely to see and beside each of them, write one of the following: squat jump, pushup or lunge.

3. Head out to your outdoor exercise spot and find all the landmarks you wrote down.

4. Jog to each of them and perform 10 reps of the exercise that corresponds with the landmark. Be careful with lamp posts —some parks have many!

5. Perform one "lap" around all the landmarks and record the order of the landmarks you find.

6. Now make a second lap, taking all the landmarks in reverse order.

This is a great activity for kids because it creates an opportunity for learning and for physical activity. They like finding the landmarks and then sprinting to them to perform the exercise. The question is, can the parents keep up? Ha, enjoy!

Matt Parrott has a doctorate in education (sport studies) and a master's in kinesiology and is certified by the American College of Sports Medicine.

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