Meet Mark

Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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August 19 2015

7 Childhood Activities that Can Make You Healthier and Happier

By Mark Sisson
51 Comments

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.

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51 thoughts on “7 Childhood Activities that Can Make You Healthier and Happier”

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  1. i remember i was taking a walk in some woods, and came across this small park. No one was there at the time, it had a swing and I just had an urge to go and swing for a little bit. I only went for about 5 minutes, but I felt like a kid again, it was a lot of fun.

    Also, even today I still daydream now and then. Usually thinking about events that may occur, or about something that I know will not happen. Sometimes I’ll even daydream while walking about.

    1. I’ve always been a daydreamer. To this day I’ll let my mind wander while I’m walking or driving. Perhaps it’s why I handle stress so well?

  2. I’ve taken to napping on the couch with my 3 year old daughter on Saturday afternoons. Usually she’s watching the TV and I’m the one actually doing the napping. Lol. It’s part of the weekend I look forward to because it gives us a chance to bond without all the distractions of the week.

  3. I just pulled out some of my coloring books the other day! Now that I’m 37 weeks pregnant I’m spending a lot more time laying around than I did before and love having something mindless to keep me occupied.

  4. I call my knitting “yarn therapy”. Guess I wasn’t that far off.

  5. I couldn’t agree more with this entire post, but please let me recommend hula hoops! I’m an artist so daydreaming & creating is an everyday thing for me, but hoop dance has done more to connect me to my inner child in an *active* way than anything else ever. It’s just really hard to be feel like a boring old grownup while hooping! 😀

    1. I love to hula hoop and got a few coworkers involved and all owning hula hoops. That’s my outdoor, barefoot in the back yard time. I also love walking curbs for balance and I do get strange looks around the office building even though it seems perfectly normal to me.

      1. I guess i should dig my hoop out… I *think* I remember where I left it!

  6. Simply spending time with children is therapy! As a mom of 16, I have always tried to play with them and share that joy they have at the simplest things. Kids are wise enough to stop and smell the roses, and can sleep in late without worrying they have too much to do today. They aren’t weighed down by the cares of life. I have learned from so much from them! To go barefoot, and stop to gaze up at the stars!
    To be spontaneous! Also, kids can forgive and forget so easily…:)

  7. This is so timely. Just yesterday my daughter and I had a play date with a friend and her son. The adults colored in adult coloring books while the kids lego’d. We all did origami together. Then later that day I incorporated tree climbing into my workout. So certainly a very primal day. Now I’m off to clean and prep for food credits at Ok Food Cooperative! I’m very prioriceptive this week.

  8. I wish I could find an adult sized swing set. All the swings are made for tiny butts, which mine is not.

    1. Hmm. . . I can fit on the swings at the playground, but I find now that I’m an adult, they make me feel quite nauseous. Am I the only one? I assumed it was something that happened to the inner ear with age or something.

      1. It’s not just you. I get nauseous from them too if I swing too high. Roller coasters are no problem but swings are too intense I guess. 🙂

      2. Ive always felt that way about swings even as a kid. Not really enjoyable but liked tree climbing

        1. Total puke inducers!! Used to love to swing, but now porches and rockers are more my speed.

  9. Nice article, Mark. Few of us really understand how much me grow, learn, and benefit from the normal aspects of being children. We are all far more tuned into the natural world around us at that age, and still removed from the stresses of modern living.

    I’ve been inspired by your message and mission for a while now. Thanks for never letting go of your passion for it.

    Memo Stephens

  10. Mark, It starts all over when you have grandchildren. I have never really stopped doing the things you recommend and I’m 77years old.

  11. As a child my favorite activities in gym class were the rope climb, and the times when they would set up the obstacle course. As an adult, I love all the obstacle course style events available, but 1 or two a year is about all I can do. I have considered purchasing 5 acres in the country and building my own obstacle course ($$!!), but would rather join a fitness club that offers that kind of workout. Need an obstacle course for adults 🙂

  12. I would add indulging in silliness to this list. Laughter is good for you and kids are always giggling. The other day I pointed out to my niece and nephew that a character in the book I was reading them looked like their grandfather. For the rest of the book we pretended that the character WAS him and it was freaking hilarious.

  13. I remember when Legos were just blocks to create with. Now Legos are kits to build some object of Hollywood popular culture. One thing that hasn’t changed since childhood is ground level horseplay with a beloved dog. Billy goat wrestling and woof tag are activities I will always enjoy. Dogs don’t care if you are 5 or 50, they still want to play the same way. Perhaps the photo made me think of that?

  14. Climbing things and creating things and napping I have on lock down. I climb the trees on my running trail after a hard sprint to sit and catch my breath. And sometimes to terrify other runners when I jump down. 😉 I doodle everywhere, on everything. I take my lunch break to nap in my car.

    I definitely need to daydream more – it’s too easy to fill up all your free time (audiobooks for my commute, my RSS feed on my phone for lines). And demand more hugs. Maybe I need a cat (my lifestyle doesn’t lend itself well to dog ownership at the moment…)

    1. Right…cause adult males alone in playgrounds is not gonna get you any attention. Lol.

  15. It’s sad to think that children today, being so wrapped up in U14 sports, hardly find time for the above activities themselves.

  16. I swing whenever I have a chance. Several years ago, when we were driving around a state park, looking at the autumn leaves, we saw a playground with a swing set in it. Without a word, my husband pulled in and parked in front of the swing set. Then he said “Okay ladies, [we have daughters] go have fun.” And just to make sure I understood, he turned to me and said “That includes you sweetheart. I know how much you like swings.” Turns out, I was the main reason he stopped. Our youngest had swings at school and home and our oldest didn’t much care. See, our swing set at home has plastic seats that won’t fit anyone who’s hit puberty, not even my tiny, slender, 5′ tall daughter.

  17. Love it. I forgot I used to dig climbing trees when I was a kid!

  18. I used to color with my dad when I was sick, he was an artist and taught me how to shade, use color to brighten up a “white cloud”, look at life as an artist.

    I sat by a teen on a long flight who brought colors and coloring books to use for the flight. We ended up coloring and chatting the whole time, I now make my son bring art supplies for our long car rides. We also love to color together.

    Love the whole post,, probably going to leave the tree climbing to my boy, although I might try a pull up or two.

  19. Oh my goodness! It is such a coincidence that you are blogging about this! I just discovered/rediscoverd the joy of some of these childhood classics after I started working in a nursery. I found it so delightful that I sent a care package to my cousin who has depression and I filled it with crayons, fabric markers and other childhood fun things and she has loved it! I have found it so relaxing to find my “inner kid” again 🙂

  20. Great article. Also one of the previous weekend links was ripenearme.com which just got me tons of free vegetables from an amazing neighbor’s garden, I can’t thank you enough for enlightening me to that site!

  21. I would add, “Spend more time with your dog.” You will both benefit.

  22. My sister is a school teacher for new entrants, she described to me a disturbing trend – 5 year olds who cannot use their hands – no strength, did not know how to hold a crayon or pencil. All their play was on electronic devices like IPads. It took 6 months at least to rectify.

    Scary

  23. Great article!!!
    If we don’t become like children we won’t get into the kingdom of heaven, said Jesus. And you just show all the others healthy benefits of that…

  24. Love this! And so appreciate your lines here:

    “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…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.”

  25. I loved climbing my tree when I was 7 – 11 years old. I’d sit up there for hours on my bedroom branch, near my lounge room branch. My sister and brother had their own bedroom branches.
    Now I love doing handstands on the beach or riding my bike, or getting lost in thought walking along the beach. I’ve come up with my best ideas on the beach!
    I do colour in with my granddaughters but its not my favourite activity. I notice my 29 year old daughter doesn’t mind colouring in with her nieces..

  26. Great post Mark! I’d love to get to the stage where being childlike becomes second nature again. A habit, if you like. Reminded me of The Healthy Mind Platter by David Rock and Dan Siegel, which covers some of these points from a neuroscience perspective.

    Play on!

    http://www.mindplatter.com/

  27. My main hobby is spinning wool on my spinning wheel and knitting. I meet up once a week with like minded people and chat and spin and plan the next project. Its great, very medative. When Spinning with a spindle the world slows down to the speed one can turn the spindle and get it to make yarn. As a child I used to go to the top of our garden, sit on the swing and commune with nature. When travelling by train I always take my knitting, I’ve had some interesting conversations. Shame one can’t take knitting needles on planes.

  28. Stressed? Blow bubbles! You’ll feel like a little kid playing in the sun again, and it provides a yoga-like controlled deep breathing exercise (you have to go slow to get the biggest bubbles, after all).

  29. Need to add petting an animal. Petting my Weimer when I get home from work always relieves the stresses of the day and giving my 7 and 9yr old boys big hugs as well. If those 2 things don’t help you relax-you have deeper issues…

  30. I can’t believe nobody said hanging out with friends – especially when it’s not structured. I miss my book club – they made me laugh so hard, and no one wanted to go home at the end of the night – just like when we were 10. But just having dinner with friends is great too.

  31. Hey 🙂
    some month ago I had that idea of getting strong and mobile by reproducing the “workout of babies” till “workout of adults”.
    Specially when you did not really move your body for a long time, it could be good to start, how babies start.
    For example lie on the back, lineing legs and hands away from your body, moving you head.
    Rolling from your back into the position to start crawling (dunno the name when babies pull there self on the florr^^) to train different parts of your muscles (head/neck, chest, bizeps…)
    Also things like trying to stand up by pulling yourself up on a chair/table etc and making the ground you are standing on very inbalanced to train you balance and little muscles.
    And than, again later, copy the play and fun Mark mentioned in that article here.
    Actually just watching how a human being is growing up, getting strong to become a healthy adult who can sprint, hunt, fight, etc.
    Is there something similar out in the sport world? 🙂
    I think it could be very funny to be a kid again!