Health & Fitness

Parents need to get children away from their screens. Here are healthy alternatives.

It’s summer!

Time for kids to run around the neighborhood, play tag with friends and ride bikes to the park — that was true for Gen-X parents, but not their kids.

Today’s kids spend a lot of time being sedentary — even in the summer.

By their teen years, the majority of U.S. kids spend more than seven hours a day on screen time, including video games, television, computers, tablets or smartphones, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. To add to that, during the school year, they sit more than eight hours a day in class or doing homework.

So, how are they filling those eight hours during the summer?

They’re still sitting.

And for some, it’s at home without an adult, because they don’t have a choice. Summer camps and childcare aren’t affordable.

In Stanislaus County, the average monthly cost of childcare for a two-parent working family with one preschooler and one school-age child is $1,113, according to the California Budget and Policy Center. That represents a whopping 23 percent of the average median income for a household in Stanislaus County. That percentage is more than double what the government considers affordable monthly childcare costs for families.

But there are plenty of free and low-cost activities for kids in Stanislaus County that can ease the burden for families.

“He really likes science and the hands-on activities,” said Karisa Jimenez, mother of 5-year-old Julian and 9-month-old Lilli. She brought the kids to the Stanislaus County Library in Modesto last month for their outdoor program, Science Magic. Jimenez describes Julian as a curious, busy boy and she’s been seeking out free activities to keep him learning and active.

Julian was excited to make slime under the direction of Amber O’Brien-Verhulst, library assistant and self-described “citizen scientist.”

“Our summer activities are to encourage the kids to keep reading,’ said O’Brien-Verhulst, “ Also it gives them a free, fun place to come.”

Exercising their brains and bodies is essential for kids’ health.

“Sitting is a tremendous problem for kids,” said Carmela Sosa, pediatrician at Valley Children’s Hospital. She noted inactivity happens for several reasons, including that parents are working, the summer heat, lack of resources and overuse of screen time.

Being inactive has negative health consequences. In the immediate, it increases a child’s risk of being overweight or obese. For the long term, idleness can set a lifestyle pattern into adulthood. Some researchers have dubbed sitting the “new smoking,” as it contributes to health problems, such as obesity, type II diabetes, heart disease, low self-esteem and depression.

Another problem with sitting in front of a screen — kids eat more. And, their food choices are often unhealthy. They choose fewer fruits and veggies, and instead pick junk food, high in sugar, salt and fat. TV advertising strongly influences kids’ preferences for fast-food and low-nutrient foods, according to the American Psychological Association.

Vigorous, unstructured outdoor play promotes motor and social development, imagination, problem solving skills, independence and a sense of well being. It also can cultivate a love of nature. However, Sosa cautioned with the Central Valley heat, kids should avoid peak hours between 3-6 p.m., stay hydrated and frequently use sunscreen, regardless of their pigment.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children 6 and older have at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day, but only 1 in 3 do. This is difficult for families living in high crime areas, as the children often do not have access to safe, outdoor places. But, regardless of crime rates, parents fear danger for kids playing outside without supervision.

Stanislaus County, local city parks and recreation departments, libraries, school districts and nonprofit organizations recognize the summer challenges for kids and parents, and they’re stepping up to help. They offer a wide range of programs, including free and low-cost options. Recognizing that their schools are centers for the community, Ceres Unified School District offers summer school to all students.

“There are no financial requirements,” Superintendent Scott Siegel said of the district’s K-8 summer school. “Any kid in the district is welcome to come.”

CUSD provides education and services for more than 14,000 students in K-12. About 80% of their students qualify for free or reduced-cost school lunch.

“One of the unique things that Ceres does differently than a lot of other school districts is we run a full-day summer school, “ said Jay Simmonds, assistant superintendent. He added that nearly 4,000 K-8 children are attending. CUSD offers a free, after-school program until 6 p.m. during summer and regular sessions, which helps working parents.

The City of Modesto Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Department offers an array of classes and camps in their 76 parks.

“We have the Leisure Bucks Program, “ said Ashley Weaver, recreation and neighborhood services manager. Leisure Bucks is a financial assistance program for qualifying Modesto residents that offers $100 per kid per year to participate in for-fee programs. In addition, many programs are free, including Junior Giants baseball league, Maddux Youth Center and the day camp at Marshall Park.

Stanislaus County Police Activities League, PAL, a partnership of Stanislaus County Office of Education and Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department, also hosts free and low-cost activities during the summer.

“We target communities where they don’t have a lot of other services for kids,” said Alfredo Guerra, executive director of PAL. Their largest endeavor is the Empire pool, which has more than 14,000 visitors during a season. PAL operates programs in community centers in smaller cities throughout the county and serve nearly 5,000 kids. They also offer jobs supervising younger kids for teens and young adults, 17 and older with a high school diploma.

Playing outside in the summer is serious business — for kids’ health and school success.

An internet search for “free and low-cost activities for kids”, and adding the name of your community, can identify activities near you.

ChrisAnna Mink is pediatrician and health reporter for The Modesto Bee. She covers children’s health in Stanislaus County and the Central Valley. Her position is funded through the financial support from The Stanislaus County Office of Education and the Stanislaus Community Foundation, along with The GroundTruth Project’s Report for America initiative. The Modesto Bee maintains full editorial control of her work.