Catch Me in the Act: The Power of Play

By Virginia Hrywnak, DO- Family physician, Deputy Executive Director of Healthy Learning Paths, and imperfect parent of 2 school-aged daughters

iStock_000003588610Medium“Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.”  Diane Ackerman, Contemporary American author

Imagine kids having unstructured, active, free play outside.  What images do you see?  Compare those images to what you envision after reading these words- indoors, screen time, alone, sitting.  Pretty different images, right?  One of our Healthy Learning Paths’ classes is “Let’s Play”- the kids love learning about how movement helps them have healthy brains, hearts, muscles, and even happy attitudes.  We talk about how choosing active play is a “superpower” that kids have to be healthy.

At one of our parent programs, called “Brain Moves”, we talk about how and why movement and unstructured play has been shown to help kids learn better in school and be healthier physically, emotionally and socially.  It’s amazing how fun the “motor lab” portion of the program is.  It is inspiring to see a group of preschoolers and their parents taking turns pretending to “ice skate” using simple paper plates, or play “red light, green light” while pretending to be different zoo animals.

Trying to add in more active play time can be challenging with our fast-paced, often hectic, lives.  Adults may also feel hesitant or even uncomfortable with the idea of “unstructured play.”  Let your child take the lead. You will be amazed at how imaginative and fun the playtime becomes!

Here are some ideas to add more active play to your family’s day:

  1. Let kids take turns “being the DJ” and dance to a song or two. Silly dance moves are the best!
  2. Get outside and play those “old-fashioned” games you enjoyed as a kid- like tag, “red light- green light”, hopscotch, or capture-the-flag.
  3. Add a 10-15 minute walk after dinner to your daily routine, try to increase to 30 minutes over time.
  4. Try paper-plate “ice –skate” inexpensive, fun, and easy!
  5. Play a “follow- the-leader” style obstacle course- jump over the curb, run up the steps, hop on one leg around the mailbox. Take turns being the “leader.”
  6. Head over to the school playground after school hours and play!
  7. Make a straight line with painters tape (inside) or chalk (outside) and use it as a balance beam.
  8. Play laundry bin bean-bag toss. Don’t have bean-bags?  Use a rolled up pair of socks!
  9. Put pillows on the floor and pretend they are a pirate ship or hot lava or…?
  10. Play zoo animal “hide and seek”- slither like a snake to home-base or sprint like a cheetah!

“When children pretend, they’re using their imaginations to move beyond the bounds of reality.  A stick can be a magic wand.  A sock can be a puppet.  A small child can be a superhero.”

Fred Rogers, American children’s television host, 1928–2003


Learn the Power to Be Cool: Help Children Manage Stress

by Shayna Whitehouse, PhD, School Psychologist, Healthy Learning Paths’ Instructor




Sometimes it’s little, “I can’t tie my shoe.”


Sometimes it’s big, “I’m lonely and left-out.  I feel like I don’t belong.”


Friendships, playtime, sports, lessons, clubs, school, homework – and that’s just a small list of everyday activities and stresses that our children experience.  As a mother, I observe my children handle these daily experiences, and both enjoy and feel stress from them.  One of our roles as parents and caregivers is to support our children in learning how to manage stress when something does not go their way, when they feel tired, or when they are trying something new.

Here are some ideas to help children learn the power to be cool and manage stress in a healthy way:

  • Help protect children’s sleep and bedtime.  When children are rested, they are more able to use skills to handle stressors in a healthy way, and small stresses are less likely to cause a big reaction.
  • Help children eat a healthy diet.  When children have a diet balanced with fresh vegetables, fruits, and healthy proteins, they are better able to choose healthy ways to cope with stress.
  • Make time for physical activity together.  Physical activity helps both children and adults stay cool and calm under pressure.  When the weather is good, take a walk, play basketball, play catch, jump rope, take a bike ride together.  In the winter and during bad weather, make an inside obstacle course, build a fort with pillows, play follow the leader together.
  • Spend time just listening to children.  Use mealtime, bedtime, and any other moments together to connect.  Listening to children helps them feel heard and connected to their family and other caregivers.  This builds a strong foundation for lasting, trusting relationships.
  • Demonstrate your own positive self-care.  Children are sensitive to the stress of their parents and other caregivers.
    1. Model talking about your emotions using healthy emotional vocabulary.  This helps everyone be aware of feelings and empowers kids with words to express their emotions.  Kids will learn how emotions impact everyone’s day.
    2. Show children how to care for yourself during stressful times.  They will learn from you!  Model breathing, stretching, talking about emotions and using healthy strategies, “I am worried about the job interview I have.  I will prepare by getting my materials together.  I also need to make sure to breathe and stretch to bring my worries down.  Maybe we can go for a walk together, too.”

Catch Me In The Act: Why I Eat Avocados and You Should Too

Why are healthy fats important?
Healthy fats keep the brain alert to learn and focus.
Healthy fats keep the heart strong and protect the heart from disease.
Healthy fats help keep a happy attitude for mental health.

What are some foods with healthy fats?

How can I eat more foods with healthy fats?

  • Use mashed avocados in place of mayonnaise.
  • Use avocados in salads and for snacks.
  • Eat nuts, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds for snacks.
  • Add nuts, pumpkin seeds, or sunflower seeds to salads and vegetables.
  • Use olive oil for cooking and salad dressings.
  • Eat wild caught fish such as salmon.
  • Add olives to salads, vegetables, or snacks.

Easy Salad Dressing
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar or red wine vinegar
1/3 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
pinch of ground black pepper
Mix  and store in refrigerator.  This dressing can also be used as a marinade for chicken, fish, or grilled vegetables.  Bon Appétit!

By Chris Marchioni, MD, a doc on a mission to teach kids Sthealthy, the Power to Stay Healthy


Screen Time: How Much Is Too Much?

By Virginia Hrywnak, DO- Deputy Executive Director of Healthy Learning Paths, imperfect parent of 2 school-aged daughters, family physician, avid reader, and hiker.


How much is too much screen time?       It depends on the age of your child,         but in general, it’s up to us as parents     to limit screen time for our kids.               Cautionary tales of technology                 addiction abound ranging from the 4     year old British girl that needed               therapy for her iPad addiction to             stories of teens who spend most of the   day and night playing video games.

In All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum offers this simple, but powerful advice that reminds us about life lessons beyond the screen.

These are the things I learned (in Kindergarten):

1.  Share everything.
2.  Play fair.
3.  Don’t hit people.
4.  Put things back where you found them.
6.  Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
7.  Say you’re SORRY when you HURT somebody.
8.  Wash your hands before you eat.
9.  Flush.
10.  Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
11.  Live a balanced life – learn some and drink some and draw some and paint some and sing and dance and play and work everyday some.
12.  Take a nap every afternoon.
13.  When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
14.  Be aware of wonder.  Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
15.  Goldfish and hamster and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die.  So do we.
16.  And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.”

Look around at any doctor’s office, store, or restaurant and most kids and adults are on smartphones or tablets.  Only three out of ten kids ages 8 to 18 say that their parents set limits on their media use and stick to them, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation study.  Today, 8-18 year-olds devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes (7:38) to using entertainment media across a typical day (more than 53 hours a week).  The increased use of technology by children is having a startling effect on their social skills and social emotional development.  Data from a Common Sense research study in 2012 shows the majority of teachers feel increased screen time has negatively impacted their student’s attention spans, writing skills, and homework completion.  So what’s a parent to do?

Here’s a good place to start:

1.  Encourage 60 minutes or more of active play, ideally outdoors, every day.

2.  Talk with your kids about empathy, making friends, and caring for others- it’s a life skill that needs to be taught.  And it won’t be taught on a phone, tablet, computer, or TV.

3.  Encourage your kids to be creative with music, art, dance, and movement. These types of activities have been shown to help brain development.  Not crafty?  That’s ok- keep it simple and fun!

4.  Unplug as a family. Make meal time unplugged, parents included, and no screen time in the 1-2 hours before bed.  Limit screen time for kids.  Don’t hand them your phone.

5.  Make it a house rule- No screens in the bedrooms.

6.  Banish the electronic babysitter.  Don’t let you or your kids zone out on screen time when you could be having face to face talking, listening, laughing, and just hanging out time.

We’d love to hear from you!  Share your thoughts, perspective, and insight in the comments section.




2014 Top 12 Things We Love about Healthy Learning Paths

From the Healthy Learning Paths’ Staff


You’re never too old, too wacky, too wild, to pick up a book and read to a child.   Dr. Seuss



12.  We start lessons with story time.  Some are well known, popular children’s books and some much less well known.  My favorite part of story time is when all the kids are staring at me with RAPT- attention, following every word.

11.  Watching a group of kindergartners be SO engaged when using Glo-Germ lotion and a black light learning about the importance of handwashing

10.  Doing the chicken dance with 20+ preschoolers at the end of our Celebrate Celery lesson about the benefits of eating high fiber foods

9.  Hearing the kids share ideas about brushing their teeth and how to avoid getting cavities

8.  Overhearing a five year old talk with his friend about the High Five for Sleep bedtime routine and how sleep helps his brain grow

7.  Being recognized at the local rec center pool by one of the preschoolers and her family and the mom thanking me because they’ve learned a lot from the lessons

6.  Watching young kids share, take turns, and congratulate each other after doing “paper plate ice-skating”

5.  Being called by a mom who is surprised that her preschooler knows how to find how much sugar is in cereal

4.  Having a mom share that her son stopped a bully because of what he learned about Friends Who Care

3.  Seeing the hundreds of people have a great time running the Frank Shorter RACE4Kids’ Health 5K in the snow last April and enjoying the 70+ vendors at the EXPO (Spoiler alert- sign up for the April 12, 2015 RACE today!)

2.  When you enter the room, kids yell, “Yay, it’s a Healthy Learning Paths’ day!”

1.  Working with all the generous volunteers, terrific teachers, and passionate parents who help kids realize that they have the power to make healthy choices!

Thank you for a terrific 2014!  We wish you a Happy and Healthy Holiday Season!


The Superpower of Empathy: The Key to Compassion and Meaningful Connection

By Shayna Whitehouse, PhD, School Psychologist,
Healthy Learning Paths Instructor,

I was struck while preparing for a recent parent education program.  Parents were sincerely connecting and asking about each other’s family and children.  I saw care in faces, connection through listening and eye contact, and compassion through physical gestures.  As I looked at the group, I hesitated several moments to gather their attention because I saw they were engaging in an important experience with each other, something we all feel and something we all need.  Empathy.

Sometimes I think of empathy as a superpower because of the power it has to encourage cooperation, compassion, and the best in people.  Empathy is part of being human and fosters our ability to play, work and problem solve together because it helps us understand others’ emotions, thoughts and experiences – positive and negative.  It helps us engage meaningfully with another person and for the benefit of another person.  It helps us promote the wellness of another when they are feeling disconnected, uncared for or lost.  As humans, we need connection, caring and compassion.  Empathy gives us the ability to build these connections and form a link to compassion and belonging.

Children look to parents and adults around them to learn how to connect with others and to express care, compassion and emotions.  Empathy is learned through modeling, reinforcement and sincere bonding.  We must remember to model and teach empathy in our fast paced world so our children know how to significantly connect and support one another, to let each other know that we all matter, we all are needed.  We must nurture the superpower of empathy to foster children’s ability to treat others kindly, provide meaningful help, solve problems by balancing other’s needs, and be perceived as a friend and compassionate leader.  Empathy is a superpower that fosters our children’s health, happiness and connections with others.

Empathy preserves our personal relationships to others and enables us to understand others’ experiences and adjust our interactions to promote and protect their wellbeing.  We have to focus on building empathy in our society to preserve our feelings of meaningful belonging and personal compassion and engagement.  My experience at the parent presentation helped me remember how we use the superpower of empathy in everyday life and how we need it and must reserve time to teach our children its meaning and power.  Our world moves quickly, and building that superpower of empathy helps our children know they matter, we need them, and in turn they will share that human connection with others they touch now and in the future.

Tips for modeling empathy and discussing events empathetically with your child:

When your child needs empathy:

  • Put all other tasks and activities aside, take time for a full connection
  • Move to your child’s eye level and make eye contact
  • Show how to truly listen by engaging 100% with your child
  • Allow your face to show and echo the emotions of your child
  • Communicate your child’s feelings back, “Sounds like you feel…”
  • Let them know your emotions while you are listening, “I feel so sad that you had that happen.”
  • Express joy or excitement for positive events, “I see you feel joyful! I am pleased for you!”
  • Provide the physical connection your child needs

When your child observes you empathizing with another individual:

  • Never share more than what your child is ready to hear or needs to hear, but share the connection and human emotions experienced
  • Discuss the emotions of the other person and how those emotions made you feel
  • Make statements of, “That is so difficult for them. I feel for their experiences.”
  • Demonstrate when you share the joy or excitement of another too, “I am so pleased that this event is happening for them. I feel the happiness too!”

When you observe your child empathizing with another individual:

  • Discuss the connection and compassion you observed
  • State, “I am proud of you for connecting.”
  • Discuss how your child may experience big emotions from connecting with another person, and that this means they are growing up into a caring person, reinforce the positives of having these feelings
  • Discuss that these feelings are normal and make your child a caring and strong friend
  • Reinforce that the other person appreciated the connection and it was helpful

Empathy is a superpower that each of us can give and receive.


Replace Fear with Power

By Virginia Hrywnak DO- Deputy Executive Director of Healthy Learning Paths, imperfect parent of 2 school-aged daughters, family physician, avid reader, and hiker

Student sees pretend germs to learn effective hand washing.
Student sees pretend germs to learn effective hand washing.

“Let’s start by replacing fear with power by teaching our kids to be Germbusters!”

Contagious and infectious germs.  Scary stuff- with cold and flu season fast approaching, the Enterovirus D68 illness, and the Ebola viral illness in West Africa a lot of us worry about our health and the health of our families.  What can we as parents do?  Let’s start by replacing fear with power by teaching our kids to be GERMBUSTERS!

Start with proper hand washing with soap and water. People often touch their eyes, nose and mouth. Germs can get into the body through these mucous membranes and make us sick. Wash hands using warm water, soap, and at least 20 seconds of friction. What is friction?  In this case, we want to rub our hands together briskly with pressure.  This provides power to remove germs.  Do we need a timer for the 20 seconds?  Not really, just teach kids to sing the ABC’s while rubbing hands together.

Soap and water is a great first line of defense to fight germs.  Hand sanitizer and wipes work in a pinch when there is no access to soap and water, but soap and water works best.  Be consistent.  Kids want to know they need to wash their hands when they get home, before they eat or handle food, after playing outside, after playing with pets, and after coughing or sneezing.  Washing our hands helps us from spreading germs, getting sick, and missing school or work.

How are adults doing at modeling this power?  According to the American Journal of Public Health, a 2009 study showed that only 31% of men and 65% of women washed their hands after using a public restroom.  (Am J Public Health. 2009;99(2):S405-11)   WE can do better!

Teach kids to cough or sneeze into their elbow.  Model this for them. Throw tissues away in the trash can.  Wash your hands after using a tissue. Play outside and get fresh air every day. Get plenty of sleep and eat several servings of fruits and veggies every day. Don’t share utensils, water bottles or cups.

Get the flu vaccine every Fall.  It works.

Viral illnesses can make people very sick. So empower your kids to FIGHT GERMS every day.

Healthy Learning Paths empowers kids every day, one classroom at a time to “Be Well, Learn Well”.

#StartItShareItLive It.

6,570 Days and a Crystal Ball

By Virginia Hrywnak, DO- Deputy Executive Director of Healthy Learning Paths, imperfect parent of 2 school-aged daughters, family physician and avid reader, hiker and weed-puller

Mother Holding Child's Hand “Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”                              Anne Frank

As a mom, I spend a lot of time trying to help my own kids make wise, healthy choices. I try to empower my 2 daughters to make healthy choices even when I’m not with them. For the first 5 years of my career I was privileged to deliver babies as part of my full-spectrum family medicine practice. Each of those deliveries were unique, some were truly terrifying, all were amazing miracles. I’ve often thought back to those days when I’m trying to stay calm while convincing my 10 year-old to spend more than 5 minutes doing her homework, or when encouraging my 6 year old to eat her vegetables. Because time is fleeting. From the birth of our kids to age 18 is only 18 years or 936 weeks or 6,570 days. And we don’t get a crystal ball to catch even a brief glimpse of them as adults. We can just do our best, every day, in every way. There are many wise, witty statements about parenting; there are also hundreds of books, articles, blogs and websites devoted to helping people be better parents. But just like the first time you were handed your newborn, or joined with your adopted child, or foster child, or step-child you went from NOT being that child’s parent, to BEING THE PARENT. What a huge leap! We take lessons to learn to drive, swim with scuba gear or fly a plane. But no lessons or manual is required to be a parent. So we try our best to set them up for success in health, learning and life.

Success in health starts with healthy eating, enough sleep, play time and social support. Have your kids wash their hands, before eating, when getting home, after playing. Try eating a variety of fruits, veggies, proteins and complex carbohydrates every day. Have a consistent bedtime routine and stick with it. Talk with them about not smoking, drinking alcohol or trying drugs. Use the appropriate booster seats, helmets, safety gear. Teach them how to swim. Play outside every day.

Talk with your kids about HOW and WHY to be a good friend and model those behaviors in your interactions with others. Being a good listener, being empathetic, kind and caring are skills that should be taught, just like learning how to tie our shoes or ride a bike.

Learning starts with reading, writing and math right? But it also includes developing a love of learning. Make learning fun, check out your local library, have a designated place to study and start the school year off with a consistent routine. Have concerns? Touch base with your child’s teacher early and often. Stay involved.

Now let’s imagine if as parents, we did get to have that fleeting glimpse of our now 18 year old child in that mythical crystal ball! What picture would you want to see? Let’s make “Healthy the New Happy for Kids” where being well and learning well is part of every kids future.

Kids First: Start It, Share It, Live It

By Shayna Whitehouse, PhD, School Psychologist,
Healthy Learning Paths Instructor,

“Those tasks I have can
wait; look at him, listen to him when he is ready to talk.”

Professionally, I talk to parents about the importance of communicating and actively listening with their children.  However, there are moments I have to remind myself to do the very same thing with my children.  Sometimes I move quickly during the day, making sure to complete my work responsibilities while getting all the chores competed.  While these tasks are important, the first day of school served as a reminder for me about the importance of communication.

After the first day of school, I was thinking about 7 or 8 tasks I still had to complete before the day was done.  However, my children came off the bus full of emotion and thought.  They needed to talk with me.  One child likes to talk while eating his after-school snack.  My other child likes to wait until bedtime when we sit quietly in his room.  I reminded myself, “Those tasks I have can wait; look at him, listen to him when he is ready to talk.”  During snack, I heard about the new routine in 3rd grade, friends he played with at recess, and the PE schedule.  At bedtime, I heard about 6th grade and new teachers, new routines, and new opportunities.

Reminding myself to pause, look and actively listen allowed me to learn about the classrooms and my children’s experiences.  Listening helped continue to build the foundation for future communication about other topics, some more sensitive or related to personal decisions and safety.  I know I can do those 7 or 8 tasks after communicating with my children.  If they tell me they need to talk to me now, I pause, look and actively listen.  I want to be ready to provide support or answer hard questions when my children need it.

Communication helps maintain the emotional and physical foundation of the relationship between parents and children.  It fosters continuous bonding and attachment, feelings of safety and support, structures for safe decision-making, and frameworks for understanding world events.  I have to remind myself each day how important this communication is both physically and emotionally.  By actively listening and communicating, we promote strong and lasting relationships with our children.  I am glad I received the reminder to communicate on the first day of school.  I am glad to share my experience with you.

Tips for communicating and actively listening with your child:
• Put other tasks and activities aside
• Move to your child’s eye level and make eye contact
• Listen
• Keep your body relaxed and open, show you are ready to hear anything
• Nod and make statements showing you are listening
• Show empathy about situations if needed
• Communicate your child’s feelings back: “Sounds like you feel…”
• Share your feelings about the topics with your child
• If your child has questions, ask what her thoughts are first and then provide your insights or ideas and ask her to think about them and how they may work
• Model thinking time or problem solving when needed
• Keep words and body language nonjudgmental to help your child to open up about more difficult subjects
• Tell your child “thank you” for talking with you and you love having this time to connect, use words you find come naturally to you

In closing, Diane Loomans reflects:
“If I had my child to raise all over again, I’d build self-esteem first, and the house later.  I’d finger-paint more, and point the finger less.  I would do less correcting and more connecting.  I’d take my eyes off my watch, and watch with my eyes.  I’d take more hikes and fly more kites.  I’d stop playing serious, and seriously play.  I would run through more fields and gaze at more stars. I’d do more hugging and less tugging.”

Do Your Kids Feel Alone?

By Dr. Shayna Whitehouse, PhD, School Psychologist, Healthy Learning Paths Instructor,     Reaching Higher Educational Center,
Does your child feel alone?
Does your child feel alone?

 “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not.  The worst thing in life is to end up with people that make you feel all alone.”                            -Robin Williams

World events often highlight social and emotional needs and questions for children and families.  At these times, many families look for services in their community to support social and emotional needs of their children.  These are mental health needs.  Mental health impacts physical health and learning.

With school starting, families can find support by connecting with their school principal, school counselor or school psychologist.  Often these individuals provide or connect families to support for social and emotional needs.  In addition, agencies such as the Colorado Department of Human Services (or similar in other states) have links to county and community programs to support children, families, and individuals.  When families encounter emergencies, they are able to reach support at all times of the day through calling phone hotlines.  These hotlines help prevent suicide, violence, and community and school threats.

Families work hard to meet all the needs of their children.  But there are times when all of us can use some help.  Reaching out to the community for support for social and emotional health promotes positive growth in school and in the community.  When families ask for help, children witness a powerful skill. Children use the skill of asking for help when solving problems in health, learning and life.  Mental health support builds the foundation for children’s success both now and in the future.

Mental Health Resources

Community Agencies:
Colorado Office of Behavioral Health:  303-866-7400
CO Department of Human Services can be found at

Your Child’s School:
Ask for School Principal, School Counselor or School Psychologist

Prevention of Youth Suicide:
Second Wind provides support for youth at risk of suicide.  While it is not a hotline, support can be found through this organization.  Denver Metro: 303-988-2645, Boulder County: 720-212-7527,

Safe-to-tell to report safety concern or concern about wellness: 1-877-542-7233,

National Suicide Prevention Lifelineto receive support to prevent suicide:
English: 1-800-273-TALK (8255), Espanol: 1-888-628-9454