The year-end school vacation is an excellent opportunity for us parents to take a break from the daily grind of living to spend some quality bonding time with our kids and to recharge.

However, if you’re like most parents (myself included), chances are, you’d probably have a tendency to over-indulge your kids this time of the year with too much of pretty much everything – i.e., junk food, video games, TV, etc. It gets particularly challenging this time of the year to get things in balance and ensure that your child stays in good shape physically, mentally and cognitively.

This holiday season, I’d like to challenge you to make an early New Year’s resolution to re-center, re-balance the habits and lifestyle of your child to bring out the best in them and help them to stay sharp throughout the holiday season and for the new school term ahead.

As you plan your child’s vacation activities, here are a few essential brain wellness rules you would do well to keep in mind.

Physical Exercise. The brain is an integral part of the body. When your child exercises his body, he is correspondingly sharpening his brain. Physical exercise not only helps increase blood flow which improves the availability of energy to neurons, it actually enhances and influences the rate of creation of new neurons as well.

Exercise stimulates the production of proteins called “growth factors”, which promote the formation and growth of brain cells and synapses. With the prevalence of computer games, the tendency for kids to lead more sedentary lifestyles and the threat of obesity have become more real than ever. Make it a point to schedule physical exercise into your child’s daily routine. Make it an activity he/ she would enjoy.

Eat Better – Add Color to Their Diet. What’s good for your child’s body is also good for his/ her mind. The rule of thumb is to eat as colorful a diet as possible by integrate a rainbow of colors, particularly from fruits and vegetables. Here’s a brief compendium of the individual benefits of specific foods and their respective colors:

Blue/purple fruits and vegetables are colored by natural plant pigments found in blueberries, grapes and raisins and act as powerful antioxidants that protect cells from damage.  Eating more blueberries is linked with improved memory function

Red fruits and vegetables are colored by natural pigments called “lycopene” or “anthocyanins.” Lycopene in tomatoes, watermelon and pink grapefruit, for example, may help reduce risk of several types of cancer. Anthocyanins in strawberries, red grapes and other fruits and vegetables act as powerful antioxidants that protect cells from damage.

Green fruits and vegetables. Some members of the green group, including spinach and other dark leafy greens, green peppers, peas, cucumber and celery, contain lutein which helps keep vision sharp and clear.

White Vegetables & Meat

Cauliflower offers the same cancer-fighting benefits as broccoli and potatoes are a good source of vitamin C. Other white foods, like poached chicken, eggs, and tofu, provide all-important protein.

Proper Rest & Management of Stress. An often overlooked fact is that sleep is one of the most critical factor to learning and brain fitness. A child that isn’t sleeping right and/ or sufficiently is not able to form memories that are long lasting. If your child isn’t sleeping well, effectively, learning becomes impaired. Throughout the day, a child is taking in information, learning new skills and acquiring new knowledge, etc. Those experiences and information that he picked up throughout the day are stored temporarily in his/ her short term memory. When he/ she enters into sleep, particularly during the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) phase of sleep associated with dreaming, the information stored in his short term memory becomes etched into his long term memory. If your child has developed the negative habit of sleeping late, the holidays could be the best time to re-organize his/ her sleeping habit.

Brain Exercise/Continuous Mental Stimulation. Whereas physical exercise influences the rate of new neuron creation, mental exercise determines how the new neurons are used and how long they survive. Brain exercise has both short and long term benefits. Short term benefits include improved focus, alertness and memory, better mental clarity under stressful situations, improved resilience to stress, increased creativity, among other things. Over the long term, mental stimulation assists in the build up a “brain reserve” that helps prevent potential degenerative problems such as Alzheimer’s.

It’s important to keep in mind that brain exercise isn’t one thing or one specific activity – contrary to the “use it or lose it” axiom. The brain is made up of different areas with each area responsible for specific functions. When your child plays chess or does sudoku initially, it is beneficial in that it forces him/ her to learn. However, if playing chess or sudoku becomes a routine, the marginal benefit decreases substantially. The point of having a brain is precisely to learn and just as importantly – to adapt to new activities and challenges. Hence, the rules of thumb for effective brain exercises are novelty, variety and constant challenge. Just as a cross-training approach that athletes adopt helps improve their overall physical performance, new activities and challenges raises the mental “bar” and pushes your child to stay flexible and adapt to varying levels of difficulty.

These days, neuroscientists recommend computer-based brain exercise programs over paper-based ones because computer-based programs are able offer a greater variety as well as new and novel activities that in addition, are customizable in terms of a proper increasing level of challenge. When shopping for computer-based programs, look for (neuro) plasticity-based ones that help the brain to form new neural pathways and work on the key areas of memory, attention, auditory and reasoning improvements, increased concentration, processing speed and visual-spatial skills. More tailored, clinician or coach-supported programs that train specific areas of a child’s cognitive and/ or socio-emotional functions such as EEG Biofeedback are now available in Indonesia.

Speak to your child’s school psychologist or paediatrician for information and referrals on such programs.

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