Eric Knaus – a children's entertainer who goes by the name The Great Zucchini – understands the power of laughter, especially for kids. After all, his whole career is based on making young audiences laugh as hard as they can. Experts say that kind of laughter has a lasting impact on children. It's not just fun to laugh; it's healthy, too.
“It sounds cheesy,” Eric Knaus tells Northern Virginia Magazine, “but there is no better sound to me than hearing kids roll with good times.” And the kind of rolling laughter that The Great Zucchini produces has big health benefits for young bodies. Researchers from Lomo Linda University have found that laughter gives a big boost to the immune system and growth hormones.
“Laughter stimulates the production of beta-endorphins, the body's natural painkillers, as well as human growth hormone, which helps tune up the immune system and regulate metabolism,” the health experts at Juicy Juice report. Moreover, according to Mayo Clinic, having a good laugh also relieves stress, soothes tension and tummy troubles, and keeps the heart, lungs, and muscles in good shape.
Author, psychotherapist, and health professional Dorothea Hover-Kramer tells Juicy Juice, “Research is confirming what has always made sense: when a child is happy, the immune system is active and health is supported.”
“We change physiologically when we laugh,” explains R. Morgan Griffin, writer for WebMD. “We stretch muscles throughout our face and body, our pulse and blood pressure go up, and we breathe faster, sending more oxygen to our tissues.”
William Fry, a researcher who pioneered studies in laughter therapy, claims it would take ten minutes on a rowing machine to match the aerobic exercise from just one minute of laughing.
“The effects of laughter and exercise are very similar,” psychologist and laugh therapist Steve Wilson tells WebMD. “Combining laughter and movement, like waving your arms, is a great way to boost your heart rate.”
You could hire The Great Zucchini to give your kids a healthy laugh. But if you're not in the Washington, DC area, KidsHealth has some tips to inject daily doses of humor into family life. “Nothing brings a family together like laughter,” says D'Arcy Lyness, PhD, “developing a good sense of humor early on does wonders for a child’s intellect, emotional well-being, and physical health.”
It's important to develop a sense of humor right away, says Lyness. While many people think humor is inherited – you're either born funny or you're not – Lyness says it's actually a learned skill that parents can teach their children. “The ability to ‘laugh it off’ is a tool that kids can rely on throughout life,” she writes. Humor helps children develop perspective, spontaneity, and grasp new points of view.”
“Kids with a well-developed sense of humor are content and more cheerful, have greater self-esteem, and are more accepting of others,” continues Lyness. “Kids who can appreciate and share humor are also more accepted by their peers and are able to handle the difficulties that come with childhood – from being taunted, bullied, or moving to a new city and going to a new school.
Parents can impart good humor to their children as young as infancy. “Babies don't really understand humor,” says Lyness, “but they do know when you're smiling and laughing. ...Sometime between 9 and 15 months, babies know enough about the world to understand that when mom puts a diaper on her head or starts to quack like a duck, she's doing something unexpected – and that's funny.”
Toddler-aged children start to appreciate physical humor, especially if there's an element of surprise like peek-a-boo games. As children reach preschool age, they find humor in things that are out of place, “[like] a car with square wheels or a pig wearing sunglasses,” Lyness says. “And as they become more aware of bodily functions and what gets a parent's goat, preschoolers often start delighting in bathroom humor.”
This is precisely the age group that The Great Zucchini targets with his act, which is probably why his magic tricks and potty jokes are such a big hit. Channeling some non sequitur humor with your own preschoolers can keep them laughing even without professional help.
As children move into kindergarten and elementary school, they have a better grasp of wordplay and get a kick out of simple jokes with punch lines. Exaggerated humor and slapstick are also a hit with the kindergarten crowd.
Regardless of your child's age, Lyness says it's most important to engage with them in lighthearted ways. “Be spontaneous, playful, and aware of what your child finds funny at different ages,” she writes. “Also be game enough to laugh so the joke doesn't fall flat.”
The best way to keep your family laughing – and reaping the health benefits from it – is to be a model of humor yourself. “Make jokes. Tell funny stories. Laugh out loud. Deal lightly with small catastrophes like spilled milk,” says Lyness.
The Great Zucchini agrees, and hopes that all parents can keep up the humor, even after the entertainment leaves the building.
Rebekah Henson Plourde contributed to this article.