By Bob Brody
“Each generation can learn through play to better understand the other.” Research shows that you and your grandchildren benefit from play time.
This article is reprinted with permission from NextAvenue.org.
Here we go again, our five-year-old granddaughter Lucia and I, playing together and getting physical. You name it, we’ll do it: walk through a park, climb hills in your backyard, jump over puddles along the sidewalk, wrestle on the ground. And it’s only one morning. Soon I’ll be ready for a long nap.
It goes without saying that doing physical activity as a team with your grandchildren is good for your health. Recent research also suggests this, although the subject remains little studied. One study showed that half of grandparents who interacted directly with their grandchildren were more likely to be alive five years later than those who were not involved. Another study concluded that grandparents who watched their grandchildren performed better on cognitive tests than those who never did so.
“Grandparents gain many benefits from bonding with their grandchildren through physical activity: increased socialization, mental stimulation, the sense of purpose it brings, a more meaningful life,” says Michael Rogers , professor of human performance studies and director of the Center for Physical Studies. Activity and aging at Wichita State University.
Health Benefits for Grandparents
Again, the research speaks volumes. A survey of 8,972 grandmothers and 6,567 grandfathers aged 50 and over, all of whom had at least one grandchild, found that grandmothers who stepped in to provide child care – that either frequently or rarely – had “significantly higher physical health scores” than those. who provided none.
In another study, researchers observed five three-generation families – each with at least one child, one parent and one grandparent – identified as physically active. They concluded that grandparents “contribute to a family culture of physical activity.” In addition, such games further motivated these grandparents to remain physically active.
Brina Widlansky, 69, a former preschool and elementary school teacher in Fort Lauderdale, regularly plays with her seven grandchildren, ages 13 to four months. Together, they dance and play basketball and volleyball in a swimming pool. “I spend time with my grandchildren around the game,” she says. “We make it fun rather than competitive, and everyone laughs.”
“Playing with children adds value not only for children but also for the adults who care for them,” says “The Power of Play,” a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Adults can “relive or reawaken the joy of their own childhood and recharge their batteries…Play allows children and adults to immerse themselves passionately and completely in an activity of their choice and experience intense joy.”
Tell me about that. From the start, Lucia and I engaged in all sorts of sporting antics. We crawled on the ground as I chased her, then ran away as she chased, both of us happily. I held her horizontally in the air so she could pretend to fly around the house. She put her feet on my feet so I could walk around, giving her a free ride as a passenger around the house. “Again!” she always insisted and, of course, I always obliged.
Research into play between grandparents and grandchildren may be booming. Last year, researchers at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium launched the Healthy Grandparenting project. The two-year study, likely the first of its kind, will compare caregiver grandparents with noncaregiver grandparents and non-grandparents. The researchers plan to measure physical activity levels as well as sedentary behavior, body composition and quality of life of 276 participants, half men and half women, all with grandchildren aged 5 or younger. The main goal is to find out if – and how – physical activity among grandparents increases and improves health.
Belgians take the grandparenting game very seriously, perhaps because the country has a large number of grandparents. In Belgium, it is estimated that 62% of men and 70% of women aged 50 or over are grandparents, one of the highest rates in Europe. More than half of these grandparents (53%) care for their grandchildren, averaging 13 hours of care in a typical week.
Ghent University in Belgium recently developed the Grandpact project, an almost half-finished intergenerational initiative aimed at promoting physical activity between grandparents and grandchildren. A recently published study found that the program is expected to improve not only grandparents’ physical activity and cognitive function, but also motivation, psychosocial well-being, and the quality of the grandchild-grandparent relationship.
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Susan and Jack Smithlin, both 71, of Fair Lawn, New Jersey, already have physical play with their grandchildren down to a science. After all, they are both former high school PE teachers. They take their two grandchildren, ages 2 and 4, to a local park to dribble and kick soccer balls, bounce on a trampoline or throw and catch. “We play every time we’re together,” Susan says. “It creates a bond between us.”
“Each generation can learn through play to better understand the other,” says Rogers of Wichita State University. “Grandparents will experience again what it means to be young, and grandchildren may begin to recognize that one day they will be old. This can make a big difference in how they see themselves.”
Lucia and I discovered each other as playmates inside and out. “Out?” I will ask him. “Out!” she will exclaim at the top of her lungs. Here we go, then we’ll go walking our dog or doing sprint races, nothing above our heads except the sky. There, in the open air, we will play football, baseball, basketball, tennis, any sport she wants. I’ve been playing all my life, climbing trees and swinging branches into swimming pools as a boy, so Lucia is very much a girl after my own heart.
Jim Dohms, 71, frolics more with his four great-grandchildren, ages 7, 5, 3 and 2, than with his eight grandchildren (because they live closer). They all wade in the creek behind his house in Maggie Valley, North Carolina and play Marco Polo. “I love everything,” he says, “especially the laughter of our children.”
Call playing with your grandchildren a public service if you want. It goes without saying that children need physical play to develop properly. But this need is increasingly likely to go unmet. A Seattle Children’s Research Institute survey of 8,950 preschoolers and their parents found that only 51 percent of children went outside at least once a day to walk or play with of their parents. Worse yet, due to the ever-increasing emphasis on children’s academic excellence, an estimated 30 percent of kindergartners in the United States no longer have recess.
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Do grandfathers and grandmothers play differently?
Here’s an interesting insight: Grandfathers can generally be more vigorous than grandmothers in physical play with their grandchildren. That’s what Michael Yogman, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics report “The Power of Play,” theorizes. He extrapolates this grandfather advantage from research showing that fathers are more involved than mothers when it comes to physical activity with children.
While women may take their children to the park or enroll them in a sports program, men may engage in rough play and, in doing so, encourage children to explore, take risks and develop a sense of independence .
This is the case with gender differences in the Ripp household in New York. Grandma Sarah, 67, will engage her two toddler grandchildren nearby in craft projects such as collages. But no sooner does grandfather Allan, 69, set foot in a room than children automatically expect a bit of physics. Pretending to be superheroes, they hit him, tackle him and climb on top of him. Sometimes they accidentally hit him on the nose or kick him in the groin. Despite everything, everything takes place in a spirit of adventure. “I’m lucky,” he says. “When we play, we are one.”
Pat Rumbaugh, 65, executive director of the nonprofit Let’s Play America, credits her maternal grandmother, who supported her tomboyish tendencies growing up, with her advocacy for play. She often takes her grandson Charlie, aged two, at the playground to play “freely”. Charlie can set his own agenda, whether it’s shooting a basketball, swinging a tennis racket, or pushing his newborn sister Samantha in a stroller. “We just follow his lead,” Pat says. “It’s super fun.”
How to play safely
Best advice from doctors and sports medicine experts for playing safely with your grandchild? Consider your general health and physical condition. Do the same as you would with any effort. Start slowly. Take it easy. Take breaks. Stop before you overdo it and risk injury.
“Moderation is key, both in the amount of activity and in the time spent with grandchildren,” warns Rogers. “Grandparents should avoid exercises that could aggravate heart, respiratory and metabolic diseases. Engage in activities that include cardiovascular exercise (running, walking, cycling), strength training (weightlifting), flexibility (yoga) and balance exercises (tai chi). And remember: it’s also important to take time to unwind between visits.”
Beyond that, find an activity that you both enjoy. Take a walk, play catch, or skip stones across a pond. You can introduce games that you yourself enjoyed in your own childhood, such as hopscotch, tag, monkey in the middle or stickball. Also keep in mind that children are more likely to be active outdoors than indoors.
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