Finding a balance between physical activity and screen time is tough at any age, but children need extra guidance.

Joe Maurer, a pediatrician with The Children’s Clinic, said children may resist a switch from Netflix and video games to tree climbing and backyard soccer.

“For me, there’s an aspect of authority and we’ve become a culture where we allow our children to dictate the terms of their lives,” he said.

Maurer said studies show media and video games can be addictive.

“They change the brain chemistry,” he said. “They want that the same way they want sugar and high fat foods. Parents, myself included, need to be more forceful about saying, ‘You need to turn that off and go outside.’”

But outdoor play doesn’t necessarily have to mean a drive to soccer practice.

“We feel like everything needs to be organized play,” Maurer said. “There is such a value to kids free playing. They are going to push back, but they will figure out what to do that doesn’t involve turning on the TV.”

Organized sports and outdoor camps can have great value, according to Maurer, but they aren’t the only game in town.

“I think that’s great, but we’ve lost the value of saying, ‘Hey, just go in the backyard and play with sticks,’” he said.

Maurer is the father of three children, ages 9, 8 and 5. He said it is harder to stop the habit of too much screen time than to avoid it in the first place.

“As soon as you open that floodgate, it’s hard to turn it off,” he said. “As soon as you introduce it, you’ve introduced a whole other battle.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages the use of screen media, other than video chatting, for children younger than 18 months. For ages 18 – 24 months, if parents allow screen time, the AAP recommends the use of high quality apps or programming used with the parents. For children older than age 2, the recommendation of the use with parents continues, with children using screens for one hour or less per day. For all ages, parents are encouraged to develop a media plan that includes media-free zones and times, as well as adequate sleep and physical activity.

“It’s unavoidable that at some point, parents have to introduce those avenues, but the older they are, the better you can teach the responsible use of it,” Maurer said.

But limiting screen time is off half of the equation. Getting active is a family affair.

“Our kids learn by example,” Maurer said. “Even something as simple as after dinner, going for a 15-minute walk with the kids – that is very empowering. It teaches them that it is something you value also.”

For children old enough for organized sports, Maurer recommends choosing a variety of activities to use different muscles, allow for different experiences and avoid overuse injuries that are becoming more common in children who play the same sport year-round. Maurer said social pressure to start sports early can make it difficult for families to opt for simple outdoor play.

“If they are always outside playing and kids don’t need that formal sport, they can postpone that for an indefinite amount of time,” he said. “I almost worry about families overusing that. I recommend that to families when they are having problems getting their kids interested in certain things. There’s a fine line to toe there.”

5 ways to encourage your child to be more active

According to studies by the American Academy of Pediatrics, only one in three children are physically active each day. Parents can play a role in helping their children fight obesity with these tips from the AAP.

• Consult with a doctor: A doctor can rule out medical reasons your child doesn’t feel like being active and then suggest activities to start with.

• Be a role model: Children who see their parents being active, through sports or other activities, are more likely to do so themselves.

• Limit screen time: The AAP recommends no more than 1 to 2 hours of total screen time, including TV, videos, computers, and video games, each day.

• Play with your kids: Grab a ball and head outside, or if it’s raining, do exercises together indoors. Make it fun!

• Don’t overdo it: Exercise and physical shouldn’t hurt. If your child says it does, slow down or scale back, and consult with a doctor.

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