Regular physical activity is good for everyone – but it’s particularly important for children. The first five years of children’s lives are the most important years for their growth and development. It’s during this time that they’ll develop the habits that will take with them into adulthood.
Physical activity can include both structured and unstructured activities like free play, which can be done indoors or out. Here are some tips for keeping your little ones as active as possible:
You may not think of the first few weeks of your baby’s life as being a time when they are physically active, however within a few months, your baby will be slowly developing the critical motor skills they will need to build an active and physically stimulating adult life.
- Physical activity – particularly supervised floor-based play in safe environments – should be encouraged from birth.
- Before infants begin to crawl, physical activity can include reaching and grasping, pulling and pushing, moving their head, body and limbs during daily routines, and supervised floor play including tummy time.
Once your infant is mobile, you should encourage them to be as active as possible in a safe, supervised and nurturing play environment.
- Lie your baby down on their back so they can kick their legs. If you have a baby play gym, this can be used to develop cognitive skills, visual perception, and sensory stimulation and awareness.
- Choose ‘active’ toys like boxes, pots, pans, streamers, hoops and toys that encourage reaching, stretching, crawling and moving.
- Ensure they get plenty of supervised floor play from birth, which will help develop their gross motor skills and build up the muscles they need for sitting and crawling. A toy placed in front of them is great motivation!
- Pulling, pushing, grasping and reaching for balls and soft toys are great ways babies can practice different kinds of movements. Better still, they are maximising their physical interactions with you. It’s a Mummy-Baby workout!
- Play music to encourage playful movements and encourage movement and play during bath time. Bath toys are great tools for encouraging this.
- On average babies start crawling at around 8 months, and this is when they will need as much space as possible to explore and practise their gross motor skills. However, it’s also when you’ll need to make sure everything is well and truly child-proofed!
- Zero screen time. Children younger than 2 years of age should not spend any time watching TV or using other electronic media (DVDs, computers etc.).
- Helps achieve and maintain a healthy weight
- Builds strong bones and muscles
- Improves balance, movement and co-ordination skills
- Promotes social skills through interactions with people
- Supports brain development
- Encourages self-confidence and independence
Toddlers and Pre-schoolers
It will come as no surprise to parents and carers that toddlers and pre-schoolers generally don’t like to sit still. That’s because children naturally enjoy doing what is healthiest for them, and that’s being active!
Toddlers (1 to 3 years) and pre-schoolers (3 to 5 years) should be physically active for at least three hours every day. It sounds like a lot, right? However, activities don’t have to be structured. They can be accumulated throughout the day and can include even light activities like standing up, playing and moving around.
- Walk to places rather than driving or using the stroller.
- Take them to the park as much as possible – toddlers love climbing, swinging and running around making as much noise as possible!
- Involve them in household tasks like tidying, unpacking shopping or sorting washing (a bonus for you).
- Give them toys they can pick up and move around, which will help improve their co-ordination and develop their arm and hand muscles.
- Choose toys and play materials that encourage movement and help develop skills like running, kicking, throwing and catching, such as balls, bats, tricycles and kites.
- Play with different sized balls, twirl and run with streamers, blow bubbles and chase them through the air, play with balloons and walk barefoot on different surfaces like grass, carpet, concrete or sand.
- Engage in creative play – pretend to move like different animals, play dress ups and act out different roles, and try action songs like “Ring-A-Ring-A-Rosie” or “Head-And-Shoulders-Knees-And-Toes”.
- Play games like Hide-And-Seek, Follow the Leader, Stuck in the Mud, obstacle courses or tip/tag games.
- Minimise screen time. For children aged 2 to 5 years of age, sitting and watching TV and the use of other electronic media (DVDs, computers and other electronic games) should be limited to less than one hour per day.
- Supports healthy growth and development including being a healthy weight and reducing the risk of diseases like diabetes and cancer later in life.
- Builds strong hearts, muscles and bones
- Helps children learn fundamental movement skills
- Improves movement, balance, coordination and reaction time
- Increases mental wellbeing
- Improves social skills, self-esteem and confidence
Top ‘Active Play’ tips for all ages
- When you can, involve all of the family – try walking to the park, playing soccer in the backyard, or a visit to the zoo for a special treat.
- Being outdoors is best – just make sure kids have sun protection, such as sunscreen, hats and shade. If the weather is no good, head indoors and build cubby houses or play Hide and Seek.
- Encourage children to be independent and to explore the world around them. Allow them the freedom to create, imagine and direct their own play, while maintaining a safe environment.
- Competitive sport is not recommended for children under 5 years. Some great alternatives include structured activities like water familiarisation, recreational gymnastics and dance taught by qualified instructors.
What about time spent sitting or being inactive?
Infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers should not be sedentary, restrained or kept inactive for more than one hour at a time, with the exception of sleeping. All children need some ‘down time’, however they are not naturally inactive for long periods of time.
- Sitting in strollers, highchairs and being restrained in car seats for long periods isn’t good for children’s health and development and goes against their natural tendency to be active and play.
- The use of baby jumpers and baby walkers is also discouraged. Evidence shows they can restrict the muscle development required for independent walking and may cause injury.
- Take breaks on long car trips – stop at a park or a rest area.
- Give kids a break from the stroller and let them walk for some of the journey.
- Try walking, pedalling or using a scooter for short trips.
Did you know?
Physical development during the toddler years includes some major advancements in both fine and gross motor skills, including crawling, walking, tossing a ball, stacking blocks, drinking from a cup and using a spoon.