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The real reason why kids (and adults) can’t sit still or focus


Donnie Ray Jones | Flickr CC by 2.0

Calah Alexander - published on 07/12/18

It's actually not so much about too much screen time ...

When I take my kids to the playground, it’s pretty much a free-for-all. They climb over the top of the monkey bars and walk across them, or make their way up the slide by hanging from the side, walking hand-over-hand with their bodies dangling over the mulch below.

More than once, I’ve had other parents tell my kids to get down, not to use the equipment that way, that it’s too dangerous and they could fall. If I’m close, I’ll intervene and explain that I encourage my kids to take risks on the playground, and to use the equipment in unusual and surprising ways.

Most parents will shrug and leave it at that, but some get visibly upset. One grandmother insisted that my son get down, explaining to me that a little boy fell from a slide in the 70s and was killed.

“I’m familiar with that story,” I said, “and while it’s very sad, that slide was twice as high as this one and over concrete. And the boy was 2, not 7.” She was not reassured, and reminded me that it was my responsibility to keep my children safe before gathering her grandchildren and leaving the playground.

What I didn’t have the chance to tell her was that by allowing my kids to take risks, even ones that could result in injury, I am keeping them safe. In fact, I’m keeping them far safer in the long term than kids who are “protected” — and thereby prevented from learning about their physical capabilities and limitations at a crucial early age.

Lauren Tamm recently wrote about the dangers of not allowing a child to properly develop their proprioception and vestibular sense from an early age, and how it contributes to a later crisis of attention:

In order for kids to listen, focus and learn to sit still for a period of time, they must develop both proprioception and vestibular sense. The most critical time to develop a child’s proprioception and vestibular sense is before age six … Proprioception is what tells you where your body parts are without having to look at them … Without properly developed proprioception, kids can push too hard during tag, fall out their seat at the dinner table, or trip while walking up stairs. (You’ll see this a lot in toddlers as they develop proprioception, but you should see it less and less in kids ages four, five, six and beyond.) Vestibular sense provides information about where the body is in relation to its surroundings. This is the sense that helps you understand balance, and it connects with all the other senses … When the vestibular system does not develop properly all other senses will struggle to function properly. Without a strong vestibular sense, kids will have no choice but to fidget, get frustrated, experience more falls and aggression, get too close to people when talking, and struggle with focusing and listening. Because they literally cannot help it.

This isn’t a one-and-done thing, either. I know that if I want my kids to sit down and read for an hour after lunch, we need to spend at least two hours outside swimming or playing in the morning. They need the stimulation of physical activity in order to sit still and focus their minds. Their brains literally need the release of endorphins that comes with being physically active, as well as the proprioceptive and vestibular stimulation, in order to switch gears and do the heavy mental work of being still and reading.

The same thing goes for adults. When I don’t get a workout in after my morning camps, it takes me twice as long to write a post or email campers. I can’t focus well if I haven’t been active first.

So while it’s vital to allow kids to develop proprioception and vestibular sense from their toddlerhood on, it’s also vital to provide ongoing proprioceptive and vestibular stimulation throughout their lives — and yours! Our brains need our bodies to be active in order to do their best work — so go swing on those monkey bars with your kids!

ParentingPersonal Growth
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