5 ways to improve the health of your kids

1. Give them time to play

“In the first years of life, children learn best through playful experiences,” says David Elkind, Ph.D., a child development specialist and professor at Tufts University’s School of Medicine in Boston. “But these days they have less unstructured playtime than ever before.” While this may work to our advantage when we schedule children’s activities, it denies them the chance to explore on their own and make decisions. Elkind finds that play also lets kids practice managing frustration — an important life skill.

“The more you can let your child’s personality shine through,” adds Jane Nelsen, EdD, a child development specialist who is coauthor of the Positive Discipline series, “the more you’ll create an environment in which he can learn how to deal with his own problems.”

2. Teach them good hygiene

“Disease doesn’t happen overnight,” says Elkind. But if you wait too long to teach your kids about hand washing and dental care, they might not learn until adulthood. “By then, they’ll have to unlearn bad habits,” he says.

“Kids should be taught how to brush their teeth before they turn one year old,” Nelsen says. Other hygiene basics that kids should know at an early age: keeping their fingernails clean and neat, washing their hands before eating and after using the bathroom, and changing their clothes when they’re sweaty.

3. Teach them to make healthy choices

“We can’t force our children to eat a correct diet,” says David Levitsky, Ph.D., a professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “Instead we should show them how to eat healthy foods.” He suggests getting at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day, limiting high-fat dairy items (such as cheese), and choosing whole grain breads over white ones.

“It’s important that you model good eating habits,” Nelsen adds, “by serving healthful meals yourself and by avoiding junk food when you’re around your kids.”

4. Get them involved in sports

“Physical activity is a critical component of any child’s healthy development,” says Steve Fleck, Ed.D., director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University in East Lansing. He notes that regular sports participation builds endurance and confidence, while reducing obesity rates and teaching kids how to play fair.

Moreover, says Levitsky, “sports teach kids about life. They learn to work as a team and maintain an optimistic attitude. Participation in athletics can also affect a child’s level of school achievement.”

5. Encourage them to sleep well

“It’s incredibly important that children get enough rest,” says Joni Frager, M.D., a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Researchers have found that kids who don’t get enough shut-eye struggle with concentration, irritability, and difficulty managing their emotions.

“To help kids catch enough z’s,” says Nelsen, “you should put them to bed right after dinner and keep their bedroom as quiet and dark as possible. This will ensure that they get seven to nine hours of sleep every night.”