May is Mental Health Awareness Month and what better time to take stock of your children’s social and emotional wellness. The good news is that the summer break is only weeks away and there is often a boost in children’s mental health during the summertime.
Although big increases in digital consumption – as much as 10 times more for children under 8 according to a study by Common Sense Media cited by NPR – and the pandemic put a damper on some traditional summertime fun, the truth is the summer break is still a magical time for most youth. It is a time they look forward to with happy anticipation as the pressures and anxieties that can be associated with the school year fade away and their minds and bodies relax.
Sun-filled days, sunny dispositions
It might seem an oversimplification to think that actual sunlight can give kids sunny personalities or feelings but there is some scientific basis for why kids tend to be in better spirits and stronger mental places during the summer. An article in Healthline entitled “8 Mental Health Benefits of Getting Your Kids Outside, Plus Tips on How to Do It” highlights the importance of Vitamin D that comes from sunlight and which has a variety of health benefits. A healthy body typically means a healthy mind.
Plus, a lack of Vitamin D can lead to muscle weakness and general lethargy, which in turn can manifest itself in mental fatigue. “Lower levels of vitamin D have been linked to higher rates of mental health concerns,” says Joel Warsh, a board certified pediatrician and the founder of Integrative Pediatrics, in the article. Sunlight also helps the body produce serotonin, a hormone that regulates our moods. It makes sense then that kids are physically predisposed to be in better moods during the summer.
In addition, spending time outside can help improve overall physical health, which is closely linked to mental health. According to an article on Child Focus, physical activity has been shown to have a positive effect on mood and can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Kids who are physically active are also more likely to have higher self-esteem and a more positive self-image.
Just as important, are the psychological benefits of getting outside including improved relationships between kids and caretakers – so long as they spend quality time together – less time to focus on negative things when you are doing physical activity and improved sleep quality.
Getting Kids Outside and Active
In South Florida, there is no shortage of sunlight throughout the year, so we can’t just count on ultra-violet rays to keep kids happy and mentally strong during summer break. Here are some ideas:
• Encourage outdoor playtime: Whether it's at the park, in the backyard, or just around the neighborhood, getting kids outside to play and explore is a great way to boost their mood and help them stay physically active.
• Plan outdoor activities: Hiking, biking, swimming, and other outdoor activities are great ways to keep kids engaged and active during the summer months.
• Limit screen time: limits on screen time and encourage kids to find other ways to spend their time.
• Encourage creativity: Art projects, building with blocks or Legos, and other creative activities can help kids channel their energy and emotions in a positive way.
• Connect with nature: Spending time in nature has many mental health benefits. Take your kids on a nature walk, go to the beach, or just spend some time sitting with them on the porch and enjoying the fresh air.
The benefits of an active summer for kids are plentiful and for parents and caregivers still looking for help finding things for their children to do there is still time to sign them up for summer camp. Remember to look at more than 400+ low or no-cost summer camp options funded by The Trust, Miami-Dade County and Miami-Dade Public Schools at the JCS 211 Miami Helpline, available by calling 2-1-1 or visiting 211miami.org/summercamps.
And remember, mental health can be a sensitive topic for children and adolescents, so if you notice changes in your child's behavior or mood, don't hesitate to seek professional help. You can also call 2-1-1 or visit 211miami.org for mental health support and references.