Posted by Dr. Matt Hand on Jun 21, 2022 11:00:00 AM
Summer break is here. The abundance of free time that comes with it might feel both liberating and challenging for parents. Figuring out how to fill those long summer days with healthy activities for your kids is likely high on your priority list.
Moreover, the past two years have led children and adults into sedentary routines. Returning to outdoor activities can be a struggle, as many people—children especially—have grown more accustomed to increased screen time and less socialization.
In this article, pediatric nephrologist Dr. Matt Hand shares his favorite recommendations for healthy summer activities to do with your kids, as well as important safety considerations for hot weather.
If you take a step back, it’s clear that healthy patterns of human and animal behavior correlate with seasonal changes. When spring arrives and daylight hours grow longer, humans and animals are designed to wake up earlier and have more energy. In Chinese medicine, this is discussed in terms of yin and yang, summer being the yang time of year when internal heat and energies rebuild.
Everyone living above the Mason-Dixon line (roughly around Atlanta, Georgia) is likely to have insufficient vitamin D levels most of the year, if not all year round. The body cannot efficiently metabolize vitamin D in these northern climates, so taking advantage of summer sun exposure is critical. While you want to avoid burning, getting a safe amount of sunscreen-free time outdoors can be healthy for immune health, mood regulation, and even weight management in kids and adults. Choose a sunscreen with at least SPF 15, and opt for zinc oxide or titanium dioxide-based products.
Research shows that time in nature also lessens feelings of anxiousness and increases happiness. The Japanese practice Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, is known for the calming and health-promoting benefits of simply spending time in nature.
The following ideas can get everyone outdoors this summer with activities that encourage family bonding and better health.
If you haven’t yet, consider planting a garden with your kids this summer. Learning about how food grows and getting the chance to eat from their garden encourages healthier eating habits, provides moderate exercise, develops analytical abilities, relieves occasional stress, boosts mood, and even improves focus and concentration.
When you’re out gardening or doing other outdoor activities, be conscious of ticks and constantly check the whole family, including pets. Wear long pants and socks if possible. Put bug repellents, like DEET, on the outside of clothes to reap the benefits while avoiding direct skin exposure to potentially harmful chemicals.
Summer is an excellent time to plan family activities like walks, hikes, or bike rides. Safety is critical, so wear helmets, bring water, and have sunblock on hand. Being fully engaged in outdoor activities is great, but parents must keep safety in mind as the weather gets hotter.
Enjoying a picnic together is another excellent way for children to participate and get excited about healthy food preparation. You might shop together, prepare a balanced picnic lunch, and eat together at a local park or more adventurous destination. Examples of healthy picnic foods might include fruit, sliced veggies, guacamole or hummus, cheese, whole-grain crackers, nuts, and seeds.
You don’t have to spend a fortune (or anything) to take advantage of play equipment that gets your kids active. Buy a jump rope at home, or head to any park with a climbing wall, monkey bars, or pull-up bars. Children usually run around on their own at the park, and parents can take advantage of that time for their own workout using benches, bars, or doing bodyweight exercises like squats, lunges, and push-ups.
If your kids enjoy organized sports, all are a perfect way to get outdoors and stay active. However, swimming is the only sport that can save your life. According to Stanford Children’s Health, nearly 830 children under the age of 14 drown yearly, and drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional death in small children.
Enrolling your children in swim lessons is the best way to teach water safety and ensure supervision while your kids are in the water. Use life jackets with young children and avoid pool drains. As an adult, be mindful of alcohol consumption when you are responsible for supervising children around water.
Kids today tend to be overwhelmed by organized activities and are not given enough time to play freely. Climbing trees is one example of an activity that can significantly support physical strength, concentration, improved self-confidence, gross motor activity, and problem-solving abilities. Encourage your kids to start with easier trees and ask whether they feel safe. Children have a surprisingly natural ability to gauge their abilities and determine if an activity is appropriate for their skill set.
A good old-fashioned scavenger hunt is a perfect way to spend part of a summer day. Not only do kids love a treasure hunt, but mapping out this adventure promotes mind and body wellbeing, sensory regulation, and connection with nature. Check out this resource to plan your scavenger hunt.
Summer usually involves a fair amount of sweets, which is fine for most kids in moderation. To avoid going overboard with sugar, make healthy treats, like pureed fruit popsicles or one-ingredient banana ice cream.
Putting on a lemonade sale—or selling any other food or beverage your child is excited about—can be a fun and beneficial way to spend a summer day. Organizing a lemonade stand helps your child build work ethic, communication, money management skills, and even marketing abilities.
Children and adults often don’t drink enough water in summer weather, but the consequences of dehydration can be detrimental to small bodies. Watch for signs like darker urine, dry mouth, nausea, fatigue, and headaches. In small children, fewer wet diapers are a sign of dehydration. Many doctors refer to summer as the “stone season,” as people of all ages seek treatment for kidney stones due to inadequate hydration.
First and foremost, allow your children to enjoy their downtime over the summer, unwind, and have fun. Try some of these ideas to encourage as many outdoor activities as possible, and ensure you stay vigilant about specific safety concerns in hot weather.
 Cheng YC, Huang YC, Huang WL. The effect of vitamin D supplement on negative emotions: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Depress Anxiety. 2020 Jun;37(6):549-564. doi: 10.1002/da.23025. Epub 2020 May 4. PMID: 32365423.
 Hansen, M. M., Jones, R., & Tocchini, K. (2017). Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing) and Nature Therapy: A State-of-the-Art Review. International journal of environmental research and public health, 14(8), 851. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph14080851
 Kuo, F. E., & Taylor, A. F. (2004). A potential natural…for…: evidence from a national study. American journal of public health, 94(9), 1580–1586. https://doi.org/10.2105/ajph.94.9.1580
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