Give Kids an Active Start for a Healthier Future

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Parents and early childhood educators have often observed that kids are happiest when they engage with family members, caregivers or other children in active, playful ways.

And, when the pandemic forced many families to stay at home, parents soon noticed that even being in a confined space could not stifle their child’s natural urge to move.

This awareness goes hand in hand with the last 20 years of research findings regarding the interests and physical activity needs of young children from birth to age 5. For children in this age group, the desire to move, stretch, and physically explore their home and/or community setting is as natural as growing taller or having the desire to eat when hungry.

During these critical years, it’s important for parents, caregivers and teachers to provide activities and safe spaces for all young children to enjoy daily physical activity.

Start Early and Have Fun

SHAPE America’s recently released e-book, Active Start: A Statement of Physical Activity Guidelines for Children Birth to Age 5, includes national physical activity guidelines for infants, toddlers and preschoolers.

The 2020 guidelines, which incorporate recent research findings, highlight the many benefits of physical activity for young kids — as well as the role of parents, childcare specialists, and teachers in providing numerous opportunities for fun and easy-to-implement physical games and activities.

When planning physical activity sessions, parents and teachers should consider the developmental characteristics of each stage.  

Infants

  • After the second month, infants typically gain one pound of weight each month, resulting in tripling their birth weight by their first birthday. The infant’s height (length) also doubles during the first year. This physiological change in body size helps the child develop several movement capabilities that allow them to explore and interact with their surroundings.
  • Infancy is also a critical time for developing brain-neuromuscular connections. Research shows that stimulating planned physical experiences, in which the infant participates actively, positively affects brain development.
  • Sample ideas for unstructured physical activity: lying or supported sitting within range of a hanging mobile; kicking and banging objects to music; creeping around stacked pillows and playthings on the floor to assist with developing spatial awareness.
  • Sample ideas for structured physical activity: providing objects within and just out of the infant’s reach, particularly at and across the midline to encourage reaching and grasping; encouraging crawling and creeping to develop the child’s brain pathways.
Baby on blanket with toy dog

Toddlers

  • A new world of movement possibilities occurs when children no longer need to use their hands for stability or balance to walk upright. With this increased opportunity for exploration and learning, the toddler will develop fundamental movement skills such as running, jumping, throwing, and kicking.
  • Skills emerge and develop best when the child is exposed to an exciting environment, which includes regular structured and unstructured movement experiences that consider the child’s physiological potential.
  • Sample ideas for unstructured physical activity: jumping on and off floor patterns (e.g., footprints, stones, spots); playing an informal game of chase or tag; digging and building in a sandbox.
  • Sample ideas for structured physical activity: stepping and tossing a ball or small object into a bucket or hoop on the floor; playing games that ask the child to identify larger body parts (e.g., head, feet, hands, legs); moving and dancing to music.

Preschoolers

  • A preschooler’s body typically grows at a similar rate in height and weight throughout the remainder of the child’s years in school. When kids ages 3 to 5 participate in physical activity sessions involving large muscle groups for 60 minutes or longer, the resulting increase in daily caloric expenditure (combined with a balanced nutritional intake) can help prevent excessive weight gain.
  • The purpose of structured (planned) physical activity experiences for children ages 3 to 5 should be to reinforce and refine a variety of fundamental motor skills rather than have kids achieve a high level of movement competence in any one skill.
  • Sample ideas for unstructured physical activity: playing on outside playground structures such as swings, tunnels and ladders; riding on pedal tricycles, bikes, or other riding toys (while wearing a safety helmet); going on a “treasure hunt” using a variety of locomotor skills.
  • Sample ideas for structured physical activity: march single file to music in the pattern of alphabet letters or geometric shapes; ask the child to move in different directions (e.g., forward, back, to the side, in a zig-zag pathway); imitate animal movements to facilitate arm and leg strength (e.g. bear walk, seal crawl, crab walk).
Child at playground with parent

A complete list of recommended activities for each stage can be found in Active Start: A Statement of Physical Activity Guidelines for Children Birth to Age 5. These activities can fill a void for many parents, childcare workers, and preschool physical education teachers:

  • Parents will gain confidence in their skills when they see the level of enjoyment that age-appropriate activities bring to their young child.
  • Caregivers are sure to find a list of favorite fundamental movement challenges that do not require store purchased equipment or require a great deal of space for small group activity.
  • Physical educators can readily expand their list of purposeful preschool lesson activities, and the information reflecting infants and toddlers can be discussed during parent-teacher evenings.

Physical Activity for Young Kids: How Often?

One critical element of Active Start are the specific guidelines that state how often infants, toddlers and preschoolers should participate in physical activity.

While recognizing that the physical development of children varies significantly in these three age groups, parents, caregivers and teachers can use the following information to establish healthy patterns of physical activity:

Infants

  • It might seem that older infants enjoy spending large amounts of their day in a baby swing or vibrating seat. Still, it is vital to vary infants’ environments regularly during the hours that they are awake. Caregivers must place infants in settings that allow them to move and explore.
  • An infant who is limited to a small play space or spends most of the day in an infant seat is likely to take more time to reach critical physical milestones such as rolling over, sitting, crawling, and walking.
  • Infants should be physically active several times daily during hours that they are awake. It is important to provide many opportunities — of varied lengths — for physical activity across an entire day rather than designating one large block of activity time during the day.

Toddlers

  • On average, 2-year-old toddlers grow 3 inches per year and can quickly gain four or more pounds a year until they reach age 6. Toddlers need to develop new interests that help them to adapt to these physiological changes. Unstructured physical activity experiences for toddlers should allow them to experiment and discover different physical environments, move and play alongside peers, and imitate adult roles and actions.
  • Whenever possible, toddlers should have multiple daily experiences during the hours they are awake. Caregivers should build in sessions of planned, structured activity into the toddler’s day, accumulating to a total of at least 30 minutes each day. Bouts of activity will vary in length, depending on the toddler’s age and developmental characteristics.
  • Toddlers should engage in at least 60 minutes and up to several hours per day of unstructured physical activity and should not be sedentary for more than 60 minutes at a time except when sleeping.

 Preschoolers

  • In addition to structured physical activities, preschoolers should have multiple opportunities to engage in unstructured activities, which allow for child-initiated movement and physical play.
  • Caregivers should incorporate at least 60 minutes of planned, structured physical activity per day. Preschoolers can engage in 30 to 45 minutes of structured, developmentally appropriate physical activity at one time followed by another 30 minutes of physical activity throughout a day to reach this goal.
  • Preschoolers should not be sedentary for more than 60 minutes at a time unless napping. Caregivers also should provide multiple opportunities for inside and outside unstructured physical activity across the day, lasting from 60 minutes to several hours.
Father playing with his daughter

Lifelong Benefits of Physical Activity 

One of the greatest gifts a parent or teacher can give a child is the love for physical activity. And developing a desire for physical activity is a little like introducing a child to a musical instrument at a young age.

How often do older adults decide to play the piano if they have never been introduced to a keyboard somewhere in their youth? It rarely happens.

Making physical activity fun is the key. SHAPE America has worked with professionals in the human science and teaching fields to create activities, books and other resources to make physical activity fun for young kids — from early childhood through high school.

The many benefits of physical activity include increased strength, flexibility, cardiovascular endurance, and decreased risk of heart disease — which most people would be surprised to learn can begin early in childhood.

Research has also shown that children who participate in body support movements (common to many playgrounds) have less osteoporosis than non-active preschoolers as they enter adulthood.

And, we must not forget that in situations where movement opportunities and play space are limited, young children’s social skills are hampered, in addition to their normal physical development.

For more early childhood activities and teacher resources visit the SHAPE America website.

Additional Resources


Rhonda Clements
Rhonda Clements

Rhonda Clements, Ed. D., is a professor of education and director of the Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy Program at Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY. She can be reached at Rhonda.Clements@mville.edu.

Stephen Virgilio
Stephen Virgilio

Stephen J. Virgilio, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Health and Sport Sciences at Adelphi University in Garden City, NY. He can be reached at virgilio@adelphi.edu.