7 Childhood Activities that Can Make You Healthier and Happier

Both my kids are grown now, but I still enjoy thinking back on the days when they were little. I can still see them covered in sand while digging on the beach, waiting enthusiastically for the next wave to knock them over, lost in whatever games their eager minds had come up with that day. While they definitely had their share of irritable days (mostly when tired or hungry), most of the time they were pure exuberance and unbridled energy – alternating between a wide-lens, darting awe of what was around them and a laser focus on whatever new treasure they had fixated on.

Likewise, they hadn’t yet absorbed conventional answers or expectations. Other than a few basic rules Carrie and I prioritized, they moved through their days with pure instinct. They let us know what they wanted (e.g. hugs, food) and were likely in much better touch with their needs than we were with our own as tired, busy parents.

As adults we adopt so many “filters” that in various ways sift or dilute or distort our experience of ourselves – let alone our apprehension of the people and events around us. We put down enjoyments to make room for additional responsibilities. We deny ourselves even basic needs (like sleep) in the name of abstract obligations or societal values. Over time, we buy into this skewed definition of what constitutes the “real world” – and end up diminishing our real well-being as a result. Maybe adulthood – and health – don’t need to be so straight-laced and confining as we too often characterize them.

I recently linked to a couple of articles on this general subject that caught my eye – research that linked typical childhood activities (for adults) with health benefits. (Just when our parents thought we were wasting time or getting into trouble…) As we head into the final weeks of summer, I thought it was a good opportunity to talk about how acting like we did all those years (or decades ago) can take our Primal living and inclusive health to a new level.

1. Break out the coloring books.

This one ended up making for good office talk. Turns out some of the bees were already onto this secret with stashes of their own. Apparently, Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, gave his patients mandala pages to work on and color, but he isn’t the only one who’s suggested picking up the colored pencils. Other experts recommend coloring for the stress reducing, even meditative effects. One psychologist notes coloring’s effect on the decreased activity in the amygdala portion of the brain, which helps process emotional responses.

My sources tell me you can find these adult coloring books (get your mind out of the gutter there) online or in most crafting and art stores. On Amazon alone, four of the top ten best-selling books are, you guessed, it, coloring books aimed at adult shoppers.

2. Climb trees – or really anything.

For likely hundreds of thousands of years, our hominid precursors climbed trees for hunting and various other survival purposes. Apparently, it (like many other essential physical practices) left its imprint on human brain functioning. Funny how that works in the evolutionary scheme of things…

Researchers compared groups who did a specific yoga routine, listened to a lecture or performed proprioceptively intensive training activities such as tree climbing and then gave each a number recall test.

The results showed the tree climbers far outperformed the others in working memory – that element of cognition that helps us hold and manipulate multiple pieces of information simultaneously. The proprioceptive benefit – a whopping 50% improvement – applies to dynamic exercises that engages both a sense of physical balance with either movement or navigation, such as “balancing on a beam, carrying awkward weights and navigating around obstacles.”

Moral of this story? Treat the world as your playground. Climb whatever you can. Jump off what you can (without becoming a Darwin Award). Balance along the curb like you did when you were seven. Carry large rocks around the yard, or just volunteer to help your friends move. From a more formal workout perspective, MovNat, Parkour and CrossFit all have elements that fit this dynamic proprioceptive model. Consider it the ideal brain break at work – even if your boss doesn’t know what to make of you.

3. Find a swing.

Anyone who’s taken a few minutes on an outdoor run to stop and swing at a park understands the release a few minutes on the swing set can offer. A key tool of physical therapists, swings engage the proprioceptive system (yup, just like the tree climbing). Another function of swinging is the sensory integration element, which figures in significantly for children with certain disabilities; however, it can also help those of us who have simply been bombarded with too much stimulation (e.g. running around all day in crowds or traffic) or too little (e.g. sitting at a desk all day). Activities that promote sensory integration have also been shown to be particularly helpful for those with post-traumatic syndrome. (PDF)

4. Daydream.

It’s one of the quintessential childhood experiences (well, except for all the over scheduled kids out there) – getting lost in random, undirected thoughts for extended spells. Maybe it’s sitting in class or watching out the living room picture window. No matter. The act itself allows the mind to roam off-leash for a while – much to our distinct benefit.

Daydreaming has been shown to significantly enhance creative thinking and problem solving abilities (with improvement measures in one study topping 40%). Likewise, those space cadet moments allow us to synthesize learning and experience – honing both the cognitive and emotional integration needed for socio-emotional well-being.

How about giving yourself the gift of nothing – that is, doing nothing. Shirk off the obligatory nagging about all the things you “should” be doing to be a productive member of society. Sit or sprawl out somewhere comfortable or inspiring (maybe under that tree you just climbed), and let your mind wander as it will.

5. Create something – anything.

At what point did we move from being inventors of our worlds to consumers of others’ ideas for it? When did we surrender the power behind creation?

As kids, it seemed innate – the desire to design and formulate, build and fashion. Some days we painted and did paper mache. Other days we made mudpies, stick forts and bike ramps. The point was never the product but the sense of excitement and ingenuity that went into it.

As adults, we can still key into this instinct, and the play of artistic creation offers more for the small investment than we imagine. There’s no need to make high-end art here. It’s the act of flow more than anything, experts believe, that elicits the dopamine release and emotional regulatory benefits. Crafting as well as art in some respects mimics the stress-relieving and cognitive preservation effects of meditation.

There’s the benefit of mental resilience but also of personal joy. One study, for example, showed that over 80% of knitters who suffered from depression reported happier moods when they had had the chance to knit. Over 50% claimed they felt “very happy.”

Consider it an excuse to pick up an old hobby – or to explore a new one. Take a community art class or become an apprentice for a craft you’re interested in learning. Let go of the perfectionistic expectation that keeps us from indulging our artistic sides past elementary school. Your well-being will benefit from doing things however “badly.”

6. Hug more.

File this under obvious. Sure, I recall that my kids’ hugs ranged from a gentle cuddling to an all-out mauling. For them, however, they were simply gestures of love and exuberance. Unless repressed by rigid or otherwise unhealthy dictates, children naturally seek out what feels good – and is good for them (okay, minus the candy). Hugs might be the pinnacle here.

Embraces from people we trust can elicit all the feel-good hormones ranging from serotonin to dopamine to oxytocin – with a protective effect that can last throughout much of our day. Our blood pressure drops as do our cortisol levels. To boot, our immune systems gets a boost, and we’re less likely to get sick. No wonder kids seek out those cuddles when they’re under the weather.

Make sure you hug the people in your life more, and take advantage of the effects simply petting your animals have as well. Being an adult doesn’t mean being the stalwart, independent (isolated) figures we sometimes conjure. It means being in mature relationships with others and in honest engagement with our needs and inclinations. Serve the instincts that serve you.

7. Take a nap.

Finally, if all this play tires you out, don’t forget the play hard, sleep hard condition of childhood.

This one is self-explanatory, I think. (But here’s some Primal perspective on these restful indulgences if you’re so inclined.) I believe I might take advantage of this one today.

Thanks for reading today. What childhood activities do you still practice – or would like to do more of based for the sake of your physical and mental health? Share your thoughts on the board, and enjoy the end of the week.

Prefer listening to reading? Get an audio recording of this blog post, and subscribe to the Primal Blueprint Podcast on iTunes for instant access to all past, present and future episodes here.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!