Physical activity for young children

Physical activity for young children

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Daily physical activity: focusing on fun

When you're choosing physical activity for babies, toddlers and preschoolers, focus on activities that are fun.

If children enjoy what they're doing, they're more likely to want to keep doing it. And physical activities that children enjoy increase their ability to move well.

Physical activity can just be part of your child's everyday play and can start very early in life.

Physical activity for children 0-2 years

Babies aged 0-12 months need plenty of opportunities for free movement, as long as they can do it in a safe environment. An environment that encourages your child to explore and develop skills like reaching, rolling, sitting up, crawling, pulling up and walking is great.

Your child can be active inside or outside. But being outside can provide endless opportunities to use big muscles, think creatively and learn more about the environment.

Before baby can walk
Even tiny babies like to stretch and play. A large blanket on the floor (or on the grass outside) for tummy time can be a safe, clean and welcoming place for babies to practise lifting their heads. This helps them develop strong muscles. Australian guidelines recommend at least 30 minutes of tummy time spread throughout the day when baby is awake.

A blanket on the ground or floor is also a great place for baby to learn to roll, creep, crawl and sit. If you put a toy or object just out of reach, it encourages your baby to make an extra effort to reach it. This can help physical development.

Great low-cost tummy time toys include things to grab and hold like old boxes. Another idea is plastic containers with things that rattle inside. The container lids need to be on very tight so baby can't get to the little things inside. Bright colours, drawings of dots or squares or stars, shiny surfaces, changing textures and different sounds can also interest your child.

You can also encourage your baby to look, clap, reach or move to sound - try singing, rhyming or action games (like pat-a-cake and peekaboo) and talking.

If you're putting your baby on the floor, just remember to take a look for potential hazards down at baby's level. Stay with your baby to keep things safe.

When baby starts to walk
Once your child is walking, you can encourage her just by letting her move often. This means plenty of time out of the pram or stroller.

This is a great time to look for objects and activities that encourage movement. For example, when you help your child climb a slide at the local playground, you're building his self-confidence and balance. You're also paving the way for your child to climb stairs.

Playing with your child and praising her as she learns to run, jump, dance and throw encourages her to keep going.

Physical activity for children 2-5 years

Toddlers and preschoolers need plenty of time to just run around and play. Backyards, school playgrounds, empty sporting fields, adventure playgrounds, school playgrounds, parks, trails and the beach are all great places for children of this age.

Here are some ideas for keeping physical activity fun:

  • Use a large, soft ball to practise catching, hitting, bouncing and kicking. Start with something small and easy to hold like a little bean bag or tennis ball. When spaces aren't safe for balls, some rolled-up socks can be good for this.
  • Make up games that involve different types of movement. For example, get your child to chase bubbles, walk along chalk lines, gather shells and jump over puddles or cracks in the ground.
  • Play different kinds of music, or make sounds with your voice or instruments. This can encourage dancing and a sense of rhythm.
  • Invent some silly walks and runs with your child. You could try running like a monkey, jumping like a bunny and flapping like a bird.
  • When your child is ready, let him try learning to ride a bike, scooter or tricycle - under your supervision, of course. He might also enjoy playing with push toys like trucks, doll prams and toy lawn mowers.
  • Leave the car at home sometimes and walk to local places like the library, park or shops. If you're feeling really adventurous, you could even go without the pram or stroller.
How much physical activity does your child need? Toddlers and preschoolers should be physically active every day for at least three hours, spread throughout the day. This should include some sort of energetic play like running or jumping.

Organised physical activity and sport

When is the right time to sign your child up for organised sport? When your child is ready is the simple answer.

If your younger child is interested in organised sport, it might be worth looking for a non-competitive sport. Some sports offer modified versions for preschoolers - for example, Soccajoeys, Grasshopper Soccer, Little Kickers, Ready Steady Go or Gymbaroo. Other options could be dance, gymnastics or swimming clasess.

With modified sports and junior physical activity programs, the focus is usually on introducing children to structured sports, developing physical and social skills, and getting everyone to have a go. That's because there's no need to pressure young children about perfect technique, or winning and losing. It's more important for them to learn about the fun of playing, being active and trying hard.

If you think your child is ready for organised sport, you could talk to other parents about sport and physical activity programs or classes in your area. Also talk to people at the program and even the instructor for your child's age group. Go along and watch other children playing. A sign of a good program is children having fun.