Evolutionary Parenting: the Benefits of Play

Screen-Shot-2013-09-12-at-11.17.14-AMYou know all the bad news. Childhood obesity is on the rise. Juvenile diabetes is on the rise. Disorders like ADD & ADHD are being diagnosed in epic proportions. We’ve all heard the statistics, but have you really looked around at the children? What hit me like a brick wall the other day, was that we have created this situation entirely ourselves!  How? By giving our children miniature versions of our lives, instead of letting them carry on as kids. What if we just learned a little bit about ourselves FROM our own kids?! Our kids already understand the importance of Eat. Sleep. Play. They do it naturally. They are born to live well. My four year old gets tired and she crashes literally anywhere. She wakes up feeling great and helps herself to an apple, banana, carrot… whatever floats her boat, but it’s always nutritious. Then, she asks if she can run around outside, go on a walk, play on the slide or ride her bike. If we look to our hunter gatherer ancestors for information on nutrition, it only makes sense to take a look at their activities and their parenting styles as well. If you believe that there is value in learning from the past, then why stop with game, berries & nuts? Our hunter gatherer ancestors walked, and then walked some more; miles upon miles in a day. They raised their children to learn the skills of working those necessary tasks, mimicking their adult role models through play. I’ve recently become obsessed with the concept of Evolutionary Parenting. The other day, my eight year old daughter came home and said that after 2 weeks of school, she was having problems concentrating; her class was disruptive and they still hadn’t had a single recess. I found this infuriating and scheduled a conference with the principal and teacher the next day. I have been a mother on a mission for recess for the past 2 weeks. We are in week 4 now, and her class just had their first recess today. Certainly the opportunity for exercise is important. However, there is more to recess than exercise. My stance is two fold: A. school is intense, it is a full time job for a child, they just are not designed to handle that intensity and yet be immobile. B. “play” is not only useful in a school setting it is essential to learning. You cannot engage in learning with out activity, play is how children learn new skills. I found this study, published in 2011, which discusses the differences between hunter gathers and farming communities in how their children are reared. From breast feeding to sleep, from play to socialization, as we’ve adapted our lives to fit agriculture not only has our food quality and health diminished, but our parenting has too. Going back to our ancestors for a second, children moved… for miles and miles, with the adults, they weren’t stationary. Children played, rested, and mimicked the adults.

Researchers argue that play is an important learning context. In one study, Boyette found that 4- to 12-year-old children in foraging societies spent a considerable amount of time playing (31.4% of day) and laying around (idle, 37.9% of day).  It seems that for our hunter gatherer forefathers and present forager societies play was/is relatively equally divided between solitary play, social play and work play (children imitating/emulating adult tasks). 

Here was my argument with the teacher, assistant Principal and Principal last week:

  1. daily movement is necessary
  2. daily exposure to the sun is necessary
  3. breathing fresh air is necessary
  4. expending energy is necessary
  5. a mental break is necessary

Not just for children, for adults too.  Quite simply, to function at a high level takes mental clarity brought about by exercise, nutrition and environment cohesively, this is true for all of us. Education is, in fact, something that I value highly. We worked very hard to get our children into this particular school. So, perhaps, you can imagine my surprise when my daughter’s teacher eluded to the fact that I valued physical activity and athletics too much, I almost flipped my lid! I’m not sure why it’s out of line for me to expect balance of BOTH, versus choosing just one. I’m not debating the school system today because that is a full time job that I don’t want to tackle today. Instead, I want to draw attention to the fact that if you want to ensure that your child is happy, healthy and well educated; those things begin and end OUTSIDE the classroom and INSIDE your home. You need to supplement whats being done at school with the right kind of activity, engagement, play and of course nutrition while you are at home! As parents our job hasn’t gotten easier as technology has made it’s advances, it’s gotten more difficult. We need to cram activity and good nutrition into schedules that afford very little time for much outside of work & commute. I get it. I really do. So, how do we get kids moving well while still juggling school, work, homework, commutes, after school activities, and not sacrificing sleep? It’s a tall order, and one I struggle with daily.  Short of putting extra hours in the days, here are some strategies we use, for implementing movement with your kids:

  1. If you can walk somewhere, do it. Ride your bikes. Resist the temptation to just get in the car and get it over with. Admittedly, this is particularly hard for me, I am always in a hurry. Suddenly though, I realized that I was tired of hearing myself tell everyone to hurry this, rush here, etc. I needed to slow down to the kids pace and re-learn to smell the roses a bit. Even if it’s as simple as parking further away from a store and carrying those packages a few extra yards.
  2. Encourage competitive athletics, not only does it build skills and coordination, it teaches discipline and provides socialization. It’s exercise with life lessons built in to it. As an employer, faced with two equivalent candidates for a job opening, I will always choose the former athlete. To me, the skills that come with team building, disciplined practice schedules, balancing school & sports, etc. creates future leaders. My children have gained so much self confidence from their team and individual sports, as well as skills like time management, task prioritizing, and leadership.
  3. Be a good example – lead by doing. No differently than nutrition, our children learn from their role models and their biggest role model should be you! We conduct fitness challenges occasionally as a family. My kids count my laps at the pool, accompany me to Crossfit, etc. One of the things my kids like to do is keep me on task. They love turning the tables on mom, and being the “coach”. They count, they correct my form, they encourage me!
  4. Turn off the TV, the Ipad, the computer. We’ve built new rules this year because all of us  became slaves to our electronics. I knew it was bad when at the dinner table one night, I noticed that my husband had an ipad, my son a DS, my daughter a kindle and I was on my phone. Only my 4 year old was without a device and suddenly I realized that our time to connect with one another was being spent in silence. My poor little one was basically having dinner alone! Can you say “wake up call”? Those new rules are: no electronics at the dinner table, no electronics one hour before bed, and honestly, now other than me working while the kids are in school, I’ve been shutting my lap top off after 4PM each day, and all weekend.

Finally… and most importantly: 5. Make time to PLAY! For your kids and as a family. So, I went to AHS in mid August and finally got to meet Darryl Edwards, The Primal Explorer and author of “Paleo Fitness” and I confessed to him that I felt stupid crawling around on the floor in front of a bunch of adults during his primal playout(s) and our session breaks. As someone who really considers myself  to be above and unfazed by what other people think of me, this confession came as quite a surprise even to me! However, on the flip side of that, I totally try to incorporate primal play when I’m at home. Here is my secret: as parents we can take advantage of our children as “props” and incentive for our own exercise. No one thinks you look crazy when you are climbing a tree with your kids, playing on a balance beam, racing one another to get some “sprints” in, doing box jumps on a park bench with your kids. Yet, anytime I attempt to do a few CrossFit moves while I’m at my local globo-gym I get these crazy looks from people. I’m not planning to bear crawl my way into the gym any day soon, but I’ll bear crawl all over the park with the kids! So go outside, find a park, play in the grass, roll around, crawl, wrestle, jump rope, have fun… and most importantly, do it together! Not only will your fitness improve, you will teach your children to value movement and as an added bonus you will improve your relationship with your children, which to me, it all the reward I need!


About Leanna Cappucci

I am a woman, a mother, a wife, an entrepreneur and I have worn a hundred different hats in my lifetime. I've recreated myself when I've needed to, I've gleaned from the experiences I've been lucky enough to have - both positive and negative, and they have impacted the person that I am today. Like you, I've succeeded and failed and I will continue to do so, because failure is simply the precursor to success! As a coach, as a blogger and as a friend; I am just who I am. I will ramble, I will be honest, I will be emotionally invested and I will say it like it is. I am not a sugar coater, I value honesty. I am not afraid to disagree or have conflict, as those are both healthy and vital to individual growth. I enjoy teaching, learning, discussing and collaborating. As a mother, there is nothing more important to me that the responsibility I have been given to shape the lives of my children, to empower them, to protect them and to help them learn to be strong and independent adults some day.